Army parachute rigger creates unusual face masks from old military uniforms

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Erik Bakko wore an Army uniform for 13 years, and when he left the military he probably figured he’d never wear his fatigues again.

But his old uniforms, and the uniforms of other veterans, are being turned into unique face masks Bakko is crafting for his family and colleagues at the Madison VA Hospital.

Countless piles of masks in a variety of colors and shapes are being created by people throughout the U.S. to cope with a shortage of personal protection equipment. Bakko’s handiwork stands out.

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In March as the first coronavirus cases began popping up in America and some people began wearing masks, Bakko worried about his mother, Katherine Bakko, living in North Carolina.

He decided to take one of his old uniforms and make her a mask, using a template his wife, Amanda, found on the Meriter Hospital website, a modular design called the Olson after a 1930s nurse.

“This was at the same time they were comparing (the coronavirus outbreak) to war,” said Bakko, 39, who lives in DeForest.

“I thought, I can’t really put my uniform on to go back to war and protect my family and country. But they can put on my uniform. My mom can wear my uniform in a sense now.”

Bakko’s military training as an Army parachute rigger turned out to be the perfect skill to make masks on an old Brother sewing machine he bought while stationed at Fort Bragg. Parachute riggers must be meticulous and detail-oriented because people’s lives are literally in their hands.

“Our motto was ‘good to the last drop,'” Bakko joked in a phone interview.

As part of his job, Bakko learned to repair holes in parachute canopies, fix broken parachute lines and handle damaged straps and harnesses. He was a parachute rigger from 2000 to 2006 at Fort Bragg and Fort Campbell, packing more than 2,500 chutes and making 69 jumps while earning his Master Parachutist Badge. He deployed to Afghanistan twice and once to Iraq.

After he left the military Bakko earned a geology degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 105th Cavalry Regiment, serving from 2010 to 2016.

Bakko has made a couple of dozen masks from military uniforms for his family, himself and co-workers at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital where he works in Environmental Management Service. 

He uses both shirts and pants for masks and can get enough fabric from a pair of trousers for five masks; shirts are good for two masks. When his co-workers ask for a mask he tells them to bring in one of their old uniforms so a Marine veteran can wear a Marine camo mask or a Navy veteran can wear a mask from a naval uniform.

The fabric can be a bit thick to breathe through. Bakko compares it to wearing a scarf.

Bakko will also sew on the person’s name tag from their old uniform or a unit patch on their mask if they wish. He often makes two a night after he comes home from work.

“When you join the military and serve, the uniform is an equalizer,” said Bakko, who was born in La Crosse and grew up in Elkhorn. “Everybody is a brother, sister, fellow veteran. It’s the uniform that does that.”

There are no mask shortages for employees, patients and visitors at the Madison VA Hospital. The ones Bakko makes are for co-workers who want something a little different. If a colleague no longer has an old uniform, Bakko has plenty of fabric left from the four sets he had when he left the Wisconsin National Guard as a 1st lieutenant.

Bakko works with the hospital’s room cleaners, a very important job that ensures the coronavirus and other illnesses are contained, said Paul Rickert, chief of community relations.

“The commitment to our veterans is part of who we are and what we do. The ability to show our support by wearing one of Erik’s masks allows us to reconfirm that connection and is a visible reminder to our patients that we also served,” Rickert said.

More than half of the 105 Environmental Management Services employees are veterans just like Bakko.

“The thing with the uniform (masks) is it allows us veterans to get back in uniform and feel a part of this,” said Bakko.

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