There are certain businesses to be found just off any major Army post: pawn shops, tattoo parlors, barber shops and, of course, alterations stores.
Fort Hood and Killeen are no exceptions.
Alterations stores, often co-located with dry-cleaning businesses, are a common sight as one enters and exits the post, dotting Fort Hood Street and Rancier Avenue like so many brick-and-mortar ants.
With the many changes in uniforms over the years — including widely using Velcro now — as well as regular deployments and the downsizing of military members, it is difficult to fathom how so many stores manage to stay afloat.
Matthew Harter, who assists the owner at Military Sewing and Alterations on Fort Hood Street, said building relationships with the customers is key.
“We feel like we’re very closely knit with the community,” he said. “We really do grow attached to a lot of these guys.”
His mother opened the store 35 years ago. He pointed to photographs of soldiers on the walls, adding that there are more in the back. Harter said the introduction of Velcro to the uniforms made a small dent in business, but he believes fewer troops due to downsizing has affected business more dramatically.
“Not as many people are joining up or a lot of them are leaving at a faster rate,” he said.
Thomas Thomas owns four alterations and cleaning services in Killeen — Eastgate, Liberty, Rancier and Killeen Cleaners — with his wife, Kyung Thomas.
Class A uniforms
He credits his wife for establishing the first store to do Class A uniform set-ups. A retired sergeant first class, Thomas was still in the Army when his wife opened Rancier Cleaners in 1999. He recalled a specialist who came into the shop needing help putting together his Class A uniform for an inspection.
“(His uniform) was a little messed up,” Thomas said with a laugh. Kyung Thomas then quickly decided that this would be a regular service. Thomas’ Army experience made him a natural to provide this to soldiers.
“Most times, when it comes to dealing with the uniform, they’re really comfortable with me,” he said.
However, not all soldiers like to use the service. Sgt. Arielle Navarro said she has had bad luck with set-ups, and that she was “embarrassed” during an inspection the one time she had an alterations store prepare her uniform. “I have learned my lesson,” she said. “Don’t be lazy.”
Sgt. 1st Class Brian Ohmann said he uses Eastgate Cleaners since returning from his last deployment.
“I’ve passed by this one a few times, just because it’s right outside the gate,” he said. “It’s got a pretty quick turnaround. It’s a good price and it’s not out of the way at all, so that’s why I keep coming back here.”
Harter, at Military Sewing and Alterations, said some alterations requests are often made.
“Folks will come in and say, ‘Well, can I have a name tape made’ or ‘Can I have this part of my uniform altered?’” Harter said.
According to Thomas, taking the uniform in or out a few inches is the most frequent alterations job at his shops.
“That’s all day, every day,” he said.
He doesn’t think Velcro has changed the nature of the business significantly.
“Alterations will always be here, I believe, because the uniform has to be serviced some type of way,” he said. “Even Velcro requires some maintenance.”
Navarro said she uses alterations shops on Fort Hood Street for rank, name tape and other sewing jobs.
“I feel like they can be trusted and if there is a mistake, it’s easier to fix the issue,” she said.
Although starching camouflage uniforms isn’t recommended, Thomas said soldiers still request the service.
“Some of the old-school guys are still starching,” he said. “We’re just here to please the customers.” Both Harter and Thomas said they have plenty of regulars or “loyalists” and that word-of-mouth keeps business humming along.
“It really is like a family,” Harter said.