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Engraver brings GIs closer to loved ones

Web Posted: 05/28/2006 12:00 AM CDT

Scott Huddleston
Express-News Staff Writer

She used to wear pins a small flag, Marine Corps insignia or some other patriotic icon.

Now, Susie Hernandez wears a black metal bracelet around her right wrist, and she wears it all the time, except in bed. Its silver etching honors her son, a Marine from San Antonio killed in Iraq.

"Lance Cpl. Franklin A. Sweger. Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nov. 4, 1980 Dec. 16, 2004. Forever In Our Hearts," the inscription reads, next to a photo of Sweger in his dress uniform.

"It's about the only thing I wear now" as body ornamentation or jewelry, Hernandez said.

"It's a reminder to everybody, so he's not forgotten."

She visits her son's grave about once a month, and she keeps a display at home of his medals and pictures. Wearing her bracelet, despite scratches that have accumulated over almost a year, is one way she can make others aware of her son's sacrifice.

"Everyone used to have 'Support Our Troops' signs, but you don't see that much any more," she said. "And everyone's kind of soured on the war."

A perceived erosion of support for the war and indifference to the service of U.S. troops prompted San Antonio engraver Bill Stein to consider making patriotic bracelets and dog tags. Stein, who used to sell and install phone systems, opened a small engraving shop just over a year ago so he could make trophies, pet memorials and other engraved products.

He'd barely gotten started when he began to think Americans had gotten desensitized to U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. He noticed even he would gloss over headlines about troops dying overseas.

"Everyone was getting numb to the deaths, losing sight that real people were losing their lives," he said. "I was suffering from the phenomenon. I was forgetting those were real people, with real families and friends."

Recalling the MIA/POW bracelets of the Vietnam era and inspired by engraving technology that reproduces photo images, he began selling patriotic items on a Web site,, and has since sold about 2,000, priced typically at $12.50 to $15.50 each.

"It was supposed to be just a part-time endeavor, a hobby, but it's taken on a life of its own," said Stein, who runs his business with his wife, Liza, who administers the paperwork.

About half the orders are in memory of troops who died, he said. Many others honor deployed troops. Some have photo images of spouses or children, bearing words such as "Daddy, we love you" for troops abroad to wear.

"It can be depressing work," Stein said. "But we hear from people who tell us how much these items mean to them, and that's what keeps us going."

Felicia Enriquez, 20, ordered a bracelet in memory of Marine Lance Cpl. Jonathan R. Flores, 18. A roadside bomb killed Flores and three other Marines in Iraq last June 15.

"My Hero, My Angel. We All Miss You," the bracelet reads.

Enriquez had known Flores since sixth grade. She learned about the bracelets through his younger brother, Jason Flores, 16, who wears a bracelet honoring the fallen Marine.

Enriquez got her bracelet a few weeks ago. "I wear it most of the time, except when I sleep," Enriquez said. "It makes me feel he's with me still, taking care of me. It feels like he's still here with us."

Peggy Asbury of Austin recently bought a bracelet for her son-in-law, an Army helicopter mechanic in Taji, Iraq, and dog tags for her granddaughter, 11, and grandson, 3, both living in Killeen. The bracelet has her daughter's and grandchildren's photos, and the words, "Proudly Supported by the Ones I Love."

The dog tags each have her son-in-law's photo and say, "I Am Proud of My Daddy ... Who is Serving Our Country in Iraq."

The items arrived while her son-in-law, on a yearlong tour to end in December, was at home during a two-week furlough.

"It was touching for him to see the kids wearing the dog tags," Asbury said. "There's a constant worry about the children missing their father. Now, they can look down any time and see his picture hanging around their neck."

Stein, who has two grown sons, both civilians, is by no means the only maker of war bracelets. of Austin has sold tens of thousands of bracelets.

Stein said he doesn't make much money from his patriotic products, but feels closer to the troops and those who care about them.

"It's exposed me to a whole new part of our world," he said. "It's made me a better person."

Reading inscriptions he's done, one can see how Stein has been drawn to the sentiments behind words etched into metal:

"My Brother, Protecting His Country and Me."

"My Husband, Everywhere to the End, Gone but not Forgotten. I WILL LOVE YOU FOREVER."

To Susie Hernandez, the bracelets are a beacon of truth, a stark jolt of a reality that's often forgotten or unseen.

"I wear it for my son, so no one forgets what happened."