While the call to serve one’s country is a decision that changes the life of those who serve forever, I’m quite certain that Dan Berei never imagined that his life would be so impacted by the combat fatigues he wore for the six years he spent serving in the United States Army.
Like so many veterans, Dan returned home and was unsure of how to integrate back into civilian life. What he found was a disconnect that forced him to examine where he stood in daily society. What he discovered was a hidden talent, and a mission to help others.
Tell me a bit about your background.
I am veteran of the U.S. Army. I spent 6 years in the Army in special operations and had two deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom to the Philippines.
What prompted you to join the military?
I always had an interest in the military growing up, but September 11 really pushed me to join and do my part to right that wrong. The military runs in my family – my grandfather served in WW2, Korea and Vietnam as a bomber pilot and my uncle was in the Marine Corps and is a Vietnam vet.
What was the biggest obstacle upon re-entering civilian life?
Separating from the military proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. At the time, I was 22 years old and was used to being around other guys with similar experiences and a similar mindset. Moving from the military to college was a huge culture shock and, to be honest, it’s a shock I still am not used to. In the military you have a bond with the guys in your unit or on your team and everyone holds a similar level of respect for one another. That isn’t present outside of the military and it’s something I miss to this day.
Tell me about your ‘repurpose with a purpose’ project.
When I left the military I really left it – I didn’t want to talk about it, talk with guys I was in with or think about it. Over time, though, I found myself wanting to do something with the veteran community, but I wanted to leave my own mark. The idea for Combat Flags hit me like a bolt of lightning one day at work (I was on a conference call) and I went home and started cutting up my own uniforms. It took about 6 weeks to develop the product you see today.
The premise of Combat Flags is simple – repurpose with a purpose. I take donated military-worn fatigues and turn them into 4x6 inch American Flags. It’s a bit of a process, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It starts with cutting the fatigues down to size. From there I print a short bio of the previous owner on brown cotton fabric and stitch it to the fatigue material. I then stamp the fatigue side with a hand carved American stamp to finish it off. Every flag is unique – some ripped, some stained – and reflects the culture of the military perfectly.
Once the flags are complete, I sell them on etsy.com and donate half of every sale to Stop Soldier Suicide. Stop Soldier Suicide brings awareness to, and actively curbs, the growing suicide epidemic among past and present Service members. Veterans have a duty to care for one another and, with an average of 22 veterans and 1 active-duty service member committing suicide every day, we must care for one another more now than ever before.
How has creating the ‘Flags from Fatigues’ helped you?
It has helped me reconnect with other veterans, which has filled a void I didn’t realize was missing. It’s also brought back many, many memories I had forgotten about.
What has been the response from veterans regarding your flag passion project?
They absolutely love it. I’ve received dozens upon dozens of emails from veterans who want to donate uniforms because they believe in the cause so strongly.
I received an unexpected email not too long ago from an active duty Marine who told me he has been going through a rough time and wasn’t very happy in life but, after seeing my page and what I do, he knew things would be ok and that things will get better. This is what Combat Flags is all about, in my opinion, and it feels amazing knowing that have been able to help at least 1 person.
Tell me about the fatigues you receive. Where (and from whom) do they come from?
I’ve received uniforms from all over the United States from veterans and active duty alike. Army, Marines and Air Force are strongly represented at the moment in my stock, but I’m hoping to get some Navy and Coast Guard in the mix soon.
You take special orders on your Etsy site. Tell me, have you had any touching special orders? (Someone ordering a flag from their loved one’s Vietnam fatigues, for example.)
One woman just emailed me and asked if I could sew the front and back separately so she could have them framed for her husband who is about to leave the military. I’ve also been in contact with a veteran who would like for me to sew his uniforms and his father’s uniforms together to make one flag to show their shared service.
What does your family think about your project?
They absolutely love it. My wife has to deal with the mess around the house, but she is behind me 100 percent and likes to help out where she can.
You are making these flags with your grandmother’s sewing machine. Was sewing a hobby you shared with her?
I never sewed until I started Combat Flags. In fact, I spent a day or two watching YouTube videos to educate myself on how to use the sewing machine and what proper application looked like.
You donate $10 from every purchase to the organization Stop Soldier Suicide. Why did you choose this organization?
Soldier suicide is an issue that should be so easily fixed by the government. Unfortunately, they are not adequately caring for veterans who need their support, whether before they get to the point of wanting to harm themselves or after. Stop Soldier Suicide is a veteran-run organization who strives to have a positive impact on the cause and they have a proven record and network in place.
Do you have an ultimate goal in mind for your flags?
I wish I had something measurable in mind, but all I’m interested in is doing my part to help my brothers and sisters who have served and are serving.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I made my first donation to Stop Solider Suicide on May 1 (2016), which included my first month of sales, and the total donation was $672.
You can support Dan’s efforts for Stop Soldier Suicide by visiting his shop on Etsy. As a reminder, for every flag sold, $10 is donated to provide help active and veteran soldiers who are at risk for suicide.
SHANNA SABET-DEMOTT is a freelance writer living in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her husband George DeMott sings Italian arias in the shower, and Pop-Opera around the world. She has an 11 year old daughter who has survived 3 brain surgeries, and has shown her Mama the meaning of bravery at every turn. She is a lover of telling stories about food and life on her blogs, eatingoutvegas.com and stumblingbeauty.com