They mark a soldier.
They represent the accomplishments, the wounds and the careers of those who serve in the U.S. armed forces.
They are awarded for bravery.
Or for service.
Or even for being a good shot.
You’ll find them — polished and shiny — on the breasts of four-star generals or admirals, even the surgeon general.
They also rest on the uniform of a still, fallen soldier.
They tell the story of a military life.
They are military ribbons and medals.
And the best of them are made in Moore.
Joe Bryant’s career in military medals and ribbons didn’t begin until his first career — that of being a 1st sergeant in the Air Force — began to end.
In fact, the whole concept for his ribbon set design was developed because he needed to solve a problem.
“Originally, a set of military ribbons were heavy, thick and they never did line up properly,” Bryant said. “The whole reason I started was because I went to a board of review.”
Stationed in Germany, Bryant was set to appear before a military board of review. To make sure he looked his best, Bryant detoured to a restroom where, “somewhere between the restroom and the board office, one of my ribbons slid off.”
It was at that point, Bryant said, that he knew there had to be a better way for the solider to wear his ribbons and medals and “look perfect” while doing it.
So Bryant went home and created a “newer and better way” to mount the nation’s military ribbons and medals.
“I did it strictly for myself, I wanted the set to be consistent, perfect. So I constructed them as a single unit.”
Two years later, Bryant’s idea, along with a lightweight frame, helped him cut the ribbon’s weight by 90 percent and its thickness by 75 percent. It also kept the ribbons aligned perfectly straight.
Word spread quickly.
“As soon as I wore it, the guy in the office next to me says he has to have a set,” he said. “So I told him to go to the exchange and buy his ribbons and bring them and beer to my house and we’d make it work. And that’s what I did.”
Soon Bryant had more work than he could handle. He recruited his 11-year-old son, Jonathan, who sat next to him “and cut the strips.”
And for a while, the pair had their own, unique small business.
Fate changed things.
Reassigned to Oklahoma City’s Tinker Air Force, in mid-1986 the Bryants would discover their small business had developed a global appeal.
“When we left Germany, people started to ask how to get hold of me,” he said. “They said, ‘You’ve made my ribbons over here for a couple of years and now you’re not here anymore. We find you — how do we make an order?’”
At that point, Bryant’s custom ribbon hobby became a business.
“Obviously people could not bring their ribbons and me a beer and come to my house,” he said. “So I developed an order form and actually set a price down. That’s when we officially became a business.”
Word continued to spread.
The company’s blue-colored order forms were never returned. Instead, the form was photocopied — now white — and returned, from across the globe.
“Since it was brand new, no one else was doing such a thing. It was total word of mouth for the first 15 years. We didn’t do any advertising.”
But the military — like many other professions — recognizes and embraces precision work.
And the Bryants had set a new standard.
Steeped in history, military ribbons, badges and medals have been worn since the Revolutionary War. In fact, according to the U.S. Army’s Institute of Heraldry, the first badges were used to identify troops under a specific general’s command.
During the Civil War, General Philip Kearny mistook some officers for stragglers from his own command and when corrected, said he would “take steps to know how to recognize my own men hereafter.”
Using pieces of red cloth placed on his soldiers’ caps, Kearny could quickly identify his own troops.
His idea was quickly adopted and by the end of the Civil War, almost all the corps had “some type of identifying mark.”
But the medals, badges and ribbons are more than just marks.
They also represent the solider’s career and their life, Jonathan Bryant said.
“The ribbons tell the soldier’s story; their accomplishments, their wounds. They represent that soldier’s history.”
As he makes his point, the younger Bryant rubs his fingers over a tiny, brass World War II trench lighter. Engraved in script on the lighter are the initials, “TFH.”
“It’s a symbol of the war he fought and the horrors he saw,” Jonathan said. “It’s a symbol of the humans involved in the military.”
Jonathan Bryant didn’t do much on the Fourth of July.
On this Independence Day holiday, Bryant traveled to another city to be with his family, seeking solace and spending time with his loved ones.
“I’m looking for some peace and quiet,” he said.
Back at home his father, Joe, went to work.
His home grow business is now a global enterprize; today Ultra Thin Ribbon and Medal Company represents every branch of the armed services, the Coast Guard, the Public Health Service and even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
No, Joe Bryant wasn’t popping fireworks either.
He spent the holiday checking computer databases for the upcoming orders of ribbons and medals.
“I’m not much into holidays,” he says. “Except Veterans Day and Memorial Day. The Fourth of July is a celebration for everyone else. But me, I plan on working.”
Because somewhere, there’s a solider who earned a ribbon.
They mark a soldier.