NewsLocal NewsWe See You


'Celebrate Fatigues' works to honor veterans through repurposed uniforms

Celebrate Fatigues
Posted at 10:33 AM, May 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-31 11:33:23-04

PARKVILLE, Mo. — A 10-year age difference between Cathy O'Rourke and her little brother, Mark, meant she spent a lot of time looking out for him.

"I spent most of my life taking care of him," O'Rourke said.

Lt. Mark Jilka spent much of his life taking care of his country.

O'Rourke said the Navy veteran was deployed to the Persian Gulf on the USS Hawes.

He was deployed a second time to the Persian Gulf on the USS Deyo and received the Navy and Marine Corps National Achievement Medal while there.

Later, as a Naval officer, he joined the Seabees, a construction battalion, and was deployed to Afghanistan.

He returned home safely, but in 2014, the Navy veteran was killed by a distracted driver while riding his bike.

His military fatigues laid in storage.

"I didn't want to take them to a thrift store because I didn't know what would happen to them," O'Rourke said. "I felt like I needed to take care of his uniforms, too."

So, she took them to Connie Swartz, founder of 'Celebrate Fatigues,' a Kansas City, Missouri-based nonprofit that reuses fatigues to create new products.

"There are as many stories as there are pieces of fabric, I think," Swartz said.

Each piece of fabric and each stitch represents stories of the men and women who served.

"I feel like his uniforms could be respected here," O'Rourke said. "And that his service to this country would be honored."

Glass cases, dog kerchiefs and bags have all been repurposed from the donated fatigues.

"We treat the fabric with respect and we give it its dignity," Swartz said. "We just don't want this to go to the landfill."

But not every single piece donated is used.

Swartz showed 41 Action News a decorated uniform that was donated.

"The man or woman who wore this uniform earned these stripes and this ribbon and nobody else has the right to wear it," Swartz said. "This is theirs alone."

Swartz said they're still looking at ways to honor these pieces that are donated to the organization.

"They're pieces to honor but they're not pieces to wear," she said.

Swartz said she hopes the wearable items are donned with pride.

"Be proud of this piece because it's part of your history," Swartz said.

O'Rourke said her brother's legacy is now instilled in these repurposed items.

"Just to remember that somebody is over there taking care of us, just like I tried to take care of my brother," O'Rourke said. "He was taking care of everybody here at home."

Swartz washes the donated uniforms at home before handing them over to organizations like St. Michaels Veterans Home in Kansas City, Missouri, to deconstruct.

They save the fabric, pockets, belt loops, velcro, jacket cuffs, buttons, ribbons, and drawstrings.

Swartz is also looking for VFW posts to help and host deconstructing parties.

Celebrate Fatigues states during deconstruction, any names or earned insignia are removed from the uniforms and are never incorporated into Celebrate Fatigues items.

She's also looking for sewers to help repurpose items.

During the pandemic, 41 Action News wants to spotlight people, organizations and companies helping the community. To share these stories, use #WeSeeYouKSHB on social media.