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Local company builds ribbon racks and essentials for military uniforms

by: PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Jared Zabaldo stands by the shadow box that was the inspiration for his company, USA Military Medals. He earned the awards as a result of a tour of duty in Iraq in 2004.It all started when Jared Zabaldo returned from a year of active duty in Iraq in 2004 and decided he wanted to have his campaign awards to put in a shadow box.

The journey he traveled to make this happen led him to start an Internet company, which ultimately led to his current business, USA Military Medals, in a 15,000-square-foot facility near Southeast Johnson Road in Milwaukie.

Zabaldo, a Happy Valley resident, is president of business operations.

Some awards and medals are handed to soldiers when they leave active duty, but in Zabaldo’s case the awards he wanted were just given to him on paper, and he wanted the actual physical award.

“I had two options, I could buy them directly from the military, which is not too easy since there is no military base with a PX (post exchange) in Oregon, or I could purchase them on my own,” Zabaldo said.

When he finally found a website that offered the correct medals and ribbons, he had a less-than-happy experience, and decided that soldiers should have a better option.

So in 2005, he and his brother, Nathan, a programmer, launched a website from a shed behind a house, with several hundred products.

“We did not have an overnight success, but over time we figured out what to carry. Fast forward to 2012, and we have 12,000 products, some we manufacture in-house, and we engrave nameplates and dog tags,” along with other services, Zabaldo said.

Because local soldiers found out about the company, they started dropping in, so the business expanded to include a small retail space, selling things like tactical gear and service-pride items.

“It is a total coincidence that Camp Withycombe is so close, but I was living in Milwaukie at the time, so that is why we started the business here. The retail space is run like an auto parts store; customers come in and we go into the warehouse to fill their orders,” Zabaldo said.

Ribbon racks

The company, which employs 48 people, is best known for its ribbon racks, Zabaldo said.

Members of all five branches of the U. S. military receive medals for their tours of duty, and all those medals also have ribbons associated with them.

On their uniforms, most service people wear their ribbons, which need to be properly placed in a pin-on medal rack, according to the date of their tours of duty.

“We manufacture a rack for slide-on ribbons, and we are one of only three or four companies that do that,” Zabaldo said.

His company also makes the ribbons. What is tricky about the process is figuring out the proper order of the ribbons in the rack, and USA Military Medals has that covered.

“We spent a few years refining a program we call EZ Rack Builder, which puts the awards in the proper order and allows you to visually build your own rack right on the computer screen,” Zabaldo said.

Service men and women can access the program for free to help them figure out the order of the ribbons, and his company has even installed three kiosks with the program at Ft. Lewis.

USA Military Medals has contracts with the U.S. Army and Air Force exchanges, and has formed a partnership with Vanguard, a uniform company in California that manufactures medals and badges.

“We take a lot of their products and re-fashion them,” Zabaldo said.

Specialty jobs

Matteo Monaco has worked nearly two years for the company, making ribbons and medals and filling specialty orders. Last week, he was working on putting 21 medals in order for a customer whose father’s medals were damaged in Hurricane Sandy.

The father had been in the Marine Corps, and the awards included a Purple Heart and a Silver Star, as well as medals for campaigns in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, Monaco noted.

Nate Peery, a 10-month employee at USA Military Medals, takes on several jobs, including engraving name plates, dog tags and badges.

He also puts together shadow boxes, containing a service person’s ribbons, medals, patches and other memorabilia.

“I really like that it is personal to the customer; it encompasses a person’s military career in a box,” he said, adding that he learns about history as he is assembling the boxes.

“I also like that I am doing something for a family, so there is an emotional attachment,” Peery said.

One unexpected aspect of the business is the company’s tie to the entertainment industry.

“We have done uniform work for the TV shows ‘Homeland’ and ‘Army Wives,’ “ Zabaldo said, adding that USA Military Medals put together Sacha Baron Cohen’s hugely impressive ribbon rack that he sports in the movie “The Dictator.”

A new aspect to the business was launched this past quarter, when customers began asking for custom uniform tailoring services.

“It was a natural progression, since we specialize in dress uniforms,” Zabaldo said, noting that the company just concluded its busiest season, from September through December.

“Once a year, companies hold dress uniform inspections and some major events, like the Marine Corps Ball, take place around the holidays,” he said.

Four months ago, Zabaldo hired Christina Sochirca, a professional seamstress from Moldova, to take detailed measurements and do the uniform alterations; she also machine embroiders name tags.

Sochirca attended tailoring school in her native country; in her former job she worked with brides, who can be picky, she said.

What does she like best about her current job at USA Military Medals?

“Everything,” she said.

Drive to Ft. Lewis

Zabaldo graduated from Southern Oregon University and joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 2001. In his first year in law school at Willamette University, he was called up to Iraq, and spent a year there in 2004, working as a journalist.

He and an officer worked in the public affairs office and reported to Gen. David Petraeus, for whom he wrote thousands of press releases.

Zabaldo was stationed in the Green Zone in Baghdad, but traveled across the country, accompanying soldiers on missions and sleeping in bombed-out buildings.

“It was a brutal job. We’d get back to the base, and everyone else could sleep or relax, but I had to start writing,” putting everything he had experienced into perspective, he said.

Zabaldo recently left the reserves, and also left law school to run the company full time.

As for the future of USA Military Medals, he wants to increase the line of products offered, and be especially responsive to customer requests.

But Zabaldo is adamant about one thing: “We want to support local soldiers, especially those at Camp Withycombe. If they need anything, they should come and talk to us; we don’t want them to have to drive to Ft. Lewis.”



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