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Every T-Shirt Tells a War Story
Group Designs Clothing To Show Support for Troops

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006; A17

While the yellow ribbon has become the accepted sign of support for U.S. troops fighting overseas, it is decidedly plain, impersonal and sometimes intensely politicized.

At least that is what the founders of Take Pride believe, and they are trying to rally America's youth around a new set of symbols that show solidarity with the country's servicemen and servicewomen. The organization is promoting T-shirts aimed at evoking the spirit of the troops who are fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, without taking a political stance.

So far, the group offers nine different shirts inspired by individual soldiers and Marines who have risked their lives -- or are risking their lives -- on the battlefield. The shirts are colorful and contemporary, and capture the mood of those who have lived the wars.

There is a shirt that depicts a medical cross emblazoned with an image of Iraq and the words "to fight" and "to heal," emphasizing the duality of a medic's mission. There is a portrait on another shirt of a stoic Marine with the phrase "living history" below his face. And on a shirt called "Me and My 16" is a soldier with his trusty rifle and a verse from Proverbs: "The lamp of the wicked shall be put out."

Founders Patrick Gray and John Betz started the venture this summer because they sensed that people were losing sight of the troops fighting the war. They were concerned that other symbols were too fraught with politics and that there was nothing for younger people who wanted to show support.

Gray and Betz are giving 20 percent of their profits to charities and causes that assist combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week, they made their first donation -- $650 -- to a disabled veterans group in New York.

"This is a pretty historic time in world history, and the fact that these guys are doing what they're doing deserves recognition," said Gray, 32, who left his job as a lawyer in New York to start Take Pride. "There are so many positive stories about the individuals themselves, and we wanted to do something that would bring those to light in a non-cheesy, honest, stylish way. We want people to connect with the troops."

Gray is a bit ambivalent about the wars and says they are "extremely complicated" situations. But what is not complicated, he said, is his desire to support the people "who are making tremendous sacrifices daily" on behalf of the American people.

Betz, also 32, served four years in the Marine Corps until 2003. He is still a captain in the Individual Ready Reserve and talks regularly with friends who are going to or have returned from the wars.

"We don't hear about the individual achievements much," Betz said. "These shirts are a way to identify with the troops, a way to say, 'I've got your back, and I appreciate what you're doing over there,' without having to make a political statement."

One of the shirts -- "Iraq Imagined" -- has an image of a Humvee driving among palm trees, a military helicopter soaring overhead. The design is based on the experiences of Darren Hamilton of Carlsbad, Calif. The former Marine major served in Anbar province in Iraq, calling in information for airstrikes against insurgents.

Hamilton's specialty was as a Cobra helicopter pilot, but in Iraq he was a forward air controller for a reconnaissance unit, meaning he was in the thick of things in a Humvee rather than in the air. The T-shirt, he says, captures his experience in a way that nothing else has.

"It's not exploiting the experience, it's allowing people to understand it," Hamilton said in an interview. "It's progressive, it's user-friendly, it's familiar. People that serve will be able to look at these shirts and be able to say: 'This means something to me.' "

The shirts, which cost $20 or $22, are available at http://www.takepride.com/ , where the soldiers and Marines who inspired them are also featured. The Web site has a blog and accepts design ideas from troops stationed around the world -- and nominations for those who might inspire future shirts.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company