For a half-century, the clangorous machines at American Metal Fabricators have churned out stainless-steel salad bars and rotisserie-chicken...
WASHINGTON — For a half-century, the clangorous machines at American Metal Fabricators have churned out stainless-steel salad bars and rotisserie-chicken display cases for grocery stores and university cafeterias.
Last year, however, the family-owned factory near the Chesapeake Bay took on a new mission: vehicle armor for the U.S. military.
To meet the intense demand for equipment in Iraq, the Pentagon increasingly has turned to what it calls “nontraditional” vendors, with little or no defense experience. The military said it does not keep figures, but Paul Kern, who retired last month as commanding general of Army Materiel Command, estimated it has used thousands of such firms in the past two years.
“I guess everybody who does war work has got more than they can handle,” said James Phillip Poole, president of American Metal Fabricators in Prince Frederick, Md.
The stakes were particularly high for his 100 employees when they added armor to their regular line of food-service equipment in February 2004. Not only did they face a sharply increased workload, they did so knowing that every piece of metal they sliced and welded could make a life-or-death difference.
“These people are depending on this to be strong and dependable. I’ve got to make sure it is,” said John Credeur, 20, before focusing his blowtorch on the pieces of iron he was welding together into windshield frames. Beads of sweat gathered on the few blond whiskers poking out above his upper lip.
“It makes me feel like I’m part of something. To see that my hard work is helping our troops, it makes me feel good.”
The company, founded by Poole’s father in 1946 in his basement, had $10 million in sales last year. It made salad bars, which are shipped to grocery stores nationwide, and other food equipment sold to restaurants, university cafeterias and corporate dining halls.
That was before a military supplier asked Poole whether he could also produce 2,000 sets of steel armor plates to frame 170-pound bulletproof windshields for the Army’s Humvees. Workers were excited, though a bit perplexed.
“We were astonished that we got it,” foreman Tony Hardesty, 38, said. “We’ve never done black ironwork before. We were like, man, we’re doing Hummers!”
First, they had to figure out how to design the armor. The Army sent no blueprints, just the hulking front of a Humvee (for reference) and formidable technical specifications: The armor, for example, had to be strong enough to hold the windshield onto the Humvee frame even if the vehicle hit an 8-inch curb at 80 mph.
“We were just going completely fresh,” said Glen Knott, who spent three 11-hour days on a computer-design program to find a way for the company’s machines to bend and punch sheets of metal into windshield frames.
Military tests revealed a problem with the initial design: Rounds from an M-14 could pierce the two quarter-inch-thick plates of armor between the two panes of the windshield. So Poole added a third sheet.
The military contract created an overwhelming amount of work, coming during an already busy spring. The Pentagon often allowed only six weeks to fill complicated orders, causing some workers to put in 12-hour shifts and work weekends.
As they finished the first order, new requests poured in. The firm has produced more than 8,000 sets of armored windshield frames.
It’s been easy to get employees to meet the production targets, Poole said.
“You just feel like you’re helping soldiers,” Hardesty said. “You see the pictures of Humvees on TV and we’re like, ‘We built that!’ ”
Military jargon and such acronyms as MTVR (Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement) and LVS (Logistics Vehicle System) fill conversations on the factory floor. Hardesty sometimes wonders how the small company got involved in the military production, he said, though he’d be honored to continue.
“I’ll keep on building them as long as we go to war,” he said.
After the Iraqi elections in January, some workers thought their role in the war effort would end.
This month, Poole announced that the military had placed an order for 450 more armored windshield frames.