On Sunday, as people filed into the Black Sheep Restaurant in Niantic for brunch following the annual Veterans Day ceremony that was held just a few steps away, they were greeted by staff in shirts bearing the words: "Would You Risk Your Life For Me? A Veteran Did."
The shirts are made by a local company called Apparel of Honor. The company was founded in 2010 by Jess Smith of Waterford and her old college roommate, Jodi Gould, of New Hampshire. A percentage of the proceeds from the company’s sales goes directly to soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder through the Wounded Warrior Project.
Gould said she first got the idea for the business in 2009. She was watching television and she realized that the biggest focus of people under 40 was on Kim Kardashian and Snooki of Jersey Shore. Meanwhile, there was a group of people fighting in a foreign land and putting their lives in danger on our behalf who were going mostly unrecognized. Gould decided she wanted to do something to change that.
Gould’s idea was to create a tee-shirt saying that veterans were cooler than the movie stars who seem to command so much of our attention. She called her old college roommate, Smith, and told her about the plan she had in mind and with that, a business and a passion were born.
The goal, Smith said, is to have veterans see these tee-shirts and know they are appreciated.
“We want [veterans] to know that they are not forgotten,” Smith said. “That’s what it is all about. It is just about making sure [they] know that we are paying attention and we appreciate it," Smith said.
The two women started the business Apparel of Honor in January of 2010. Their first shirt simply said veterans are greater than movie stars, and a business was born.
Smith, 37, is a veteran herself. She served eight years in the Air Force after completing the ROTC program at Eastern Connecticut State University, and she now works for a company that does public relations for the army.
Smith provides the public relations part of the business, along with the technical aspects of running a company, while Gould – a graphic designer – designs the shirts. There are now a variety of shirts, which are sold online and by Gould and Smith to people in person, and all the shirts are manufactured in America.
Smith admits the company is far from paying her bills and she is still learning the many regulations and taxes that are part of running a business. But she said she has seen how the shirts and the company have made a real difference, and that's something you just can't put a price on.
“Just things that have happened, you can’t put a price or a cost to that,” Smith said. “It is just a very surreal feeling to know you're doing something [to help veterans and their families feel appreciated]. It is something.”
Patch interviewed Smith on Saturday, and she came with three people – all dressed in Apparel of Honor garb – who receive no money from the company. They described themselves as Apparel of Honor “groupies,” who spread the word about the company because they believe so strongly in the cause. And while three showed Saturday, there are far more, all who wear Apparel of Honor clothing as often as possible.
One such groupie was Elizabeth Brown, who was wearing an Apparel of Honor shirt that said “Veterans Do it for Me” over a purple heart. Brown is the daughter of two Navy parents, and said she moved 13 times growing up.
Brown said she spreads the message of Apparel of Honor because military personnel are rarely thanked or patted on the back in the field, as they are told to do something and they do it and only hear if it is done wrong. But when a veteran sees somebody wearing a tee-shirt saying they care about veterans, it means something to them, she said.
“It is the right thing to do,” Brown said. “It is just good. It is easy, it is simple and it is just a positive message.”
Staff Sgt. Ari Cullers
One of the memories Smith will “never forget” was when she had an Apparel of Honor event on Veteran’s Day weekend last year at the Black Sheep bar in Niantic, where the wait staff all wore Apparel of Honor tee-shirts. That night, the family of Staff Sgt. Ari Cullers – a Waterford resident who died in October of 2011 in Afghanistan – was there, and noticed the shirts.
The family was emotional over the recent death of Cullers, and told Smith the shirts meant a lot to them. After hearing that, the community responded, raised $600 in one day and donated a wardrobe of Apparel of Honor shirts to the Cullers’ family.
Smith has also been to veteran’s hospitals and given soldiers who lost their arms and legs shirts, and her “groupies” give away bumper stickers that say Veterans Kick (Butt) to every veteran they see. While the company is still in its infancy, when things like that happen, it is powerful, she said.
“It is much more powerful than what Jess Smith and Jodi Gould could have ever fathomed, already,” Smith said. “And we are still an in-debt, small business two years into it.”