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08-22-07, 10:10 AM
Signs of pride
Taunton firm hopes its legible placards will help keep US troops safe in Iraq

By Anna Badkhen, Globe Correspondent | August 22, 2007

TAUNTON -- Rob McElroy has never fought in a war. But when a retired Marine told him that American civilians did nothing to help the troops fighting in Iraq, McElroy felt insulted.

"The blatancy of what he said, it was really disheartening," said the 24-year-old from Dedham, recalling the episode that took place about six months ago. McElroy, who wears a black bandanna emblazoned with a skull-and-crossbones over his red hair and has a piercing in his left eyebrow, says he feels "like I do my American civilian's part of the war effort" at the Taunton sign shop where he works.

There, in a giant depot stacked with aluminum sheets and strewn with scraps of reflective paper, McElroy and 14 other workers at Atlantic Broom Service Inc., make signs for American military bases and checkpoints in Iraq.

"Here at this shop, we're doing our part," McElroy said.

Kevin Ducette, who handles federal contracts for the company, is the first to admit that the 36-by-48-inch placards of reflective material stretched over aluminum panels are not the most crucial element in the effort to keep the troops in Iraq safe. But he believes the bright, easily legible signs warning Iraqis to stop at checkpoints or steer clear of military convoys might help save lives, American and Iraqi alike.

"Warning!" proclaims one sign, in English and Arabic. "Coalition Checkpoint Ahead! All Vehicles Subject to Search. Use of Deadly Force Authorized."

"You can clearly read that from far away," said Ducette. Some of the signs American forces in Iraq had been using in the past had nondescript beige writing on nonreflective white boards, which made it difficult to discern the warnings.

"Somebody's going to get killed if they put a sign up like this," he said.

Many employees who make the signs know someone who is serving or has served in Iraq. In 2004, McElroy lost a friend there, Marine Lance Corporal Alexander S. Arredondo, 20, of Randolph, who was killed during his second combat tour in Iraq.

"I'd taught the kid how to play his first song on guitar," McElroy said.

To make the signs, Atlantic Broom Service, which also makes street signs for New England, along with snowplow blades and brooms for street sweeping, uses the design provided to the company by the Department of Defense. The company has no Arabic-speaking employees and does not proofread the Arabic inscriptions on the boards.

"I was just praying that we put all the dots in the right places and not spelled jihad," joked Clement Kiley, 48, of Mansfield, who owns the company with his three siblings and his mother.

Muneebur Rahman, a translator at the Boston Language Institute, said the inscriptions in Arabic corresponded to those in English on the four signs shown to him by the Globe. On one of the signs, he said, an Arabic letter was missing.

"It doesn't change the meaning," Rahman said. "It just tells people there's a spelling mistake."

The company bid and won the contract about three years ago, and the sales of war-related signs have amounted to about one-third of the company's annual sales, Ducette said. This year, Atlantic Broom Service sold the Defense Department hundreds of signs for Iraq, worth about $150,000, he said.

But it is not all about the money, Ducette said.

"There's a sense of pride that we'd never had in the company before, where you're making something that has a global presence, a global impact," he said.

On a recent afternoon, McElroy, Sharon Belcastro, 44, of Lakeville, and Paul Mendes, 46, of Taunton, used an industrial roller to affix an aluminum panel to an adhesive sheet of reflective paper with instructions for troops on how to properly clear the barrels of their rifles and pistols.

Such instructions are typically posted inside American bases in Iraq. Holding the sign in place, McElroy thought of the words uttered by the former Marine.

"He said, 'America is at the mall while the Marines are at war,' " McElroy said. "Not everybody is only thinking about what's on TV. Some of us actually care."