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Veteran turns passion for country into business success

SHARE Veteran turns passion for country into business success

SALT LAKE CITY — Expressing patriotism comes in many forms, including supporting the principles of a “united” America despite differing individual opinions or political partisanship.

Military veteran Josh Vandenbrink holds those beliefs strongly, and he's used that passion to fuel the launch of his first-ever business venture.

In the summer of 2015, Vandenbrink moved from Arizona to Utah with his wife — a former Army helicopter pilot — for a job with a local company that produced survival skills videos. He quickly realized that it wasn’t for him, so he resigned and found himself in a new state with no job and no means to support himself.

Through a friend, Vandenbrink found out about a construction project in the high Uintas building “a 1,200-square-foot deck off the side of a cliff with a yurt on top of it,” he said.

“I didn’t intend for it to be a long-term thing. I just wanted to be able to provide for my family,” said Vandenbrink, 37. “I had to build a 150-foot zip line down a hill to get materials to the build site.”

Over the course of the weekslong project, Vandenbrink used the zip line to haul more than 20,000 pounds of lumber to the site of the project, which he completed mostly by himself.

“(Each day) I’d spend as many hours as I could until I was exhausted,” he explained. “I did about 85 percent by myself, but every now and then, I’d sucker someone in for a few days. Then four days in, they'd say, ‘Man, I gotta get out of here.’”

Vandenbrink said he learned “sound building principles” and fabrication skills as a young man from family members in the construction trades, and he learned resourcefulness in the military, often having to devise and build structures or equipment on-site in isolated areas.

Vandenbrink served 14 years in the military as an Air Force Pararescueman, which included 21 deployments with his special operations unit in Afghanistan.

As a civilian, Vandenbrink wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but working on the mountain yurt project gave him the confidence to pursue entrepreneurship.

About 18 months ago, he started Iron Mountain Designs — a custom fabrication and mill works company located in a small shop in South Salt Lake.

Initially, Vandenbrink had few clients, but he came across an idea to fabricate American flags from steel. And that quickly became a top seller.

“We’d gotten continuous orders on the flags, so that’s really sustained us for the first few months,” he said.

But Vandenbrink then had an unexpected medical setback that put his life and livelihood in peril.

“We got a first order of flags on Feb. 8," he said, "and on Feb. 11, I had a seizure in the shop. (Doctors) don’t really know what happened. Basically I’ve had so many traumatic brain injuries in combat that they think there is something that is triggered inside of me. It was the second time it had happened.”

Vandenbrink had “stroke-like” symptoms, “blacked out” and didn’t remember anything for five days after the incident.

“Apparently, I went to the hospital a bunch of times and they did all these (tests), and then I just came out of this fog,” he explained.

Vandenbrink was forced to relearn how to create his beautiful steel flags.

“I made over 50 flags (in three months) and never shipped a single one because none of them looked right,” he said. “Whatever I did (before the seizure), I couldn’t remember how to do it again.”

Vandenbrink called it a “trying time” in his upstart business, but he was eventually able to figure it out and made sure to write it down — “just in case.”

Today, in addition to the decorative steel flags, his company creates custom home furnishings and was recently commissioned to create all the furniture, bar and artwork for a new restaurant being developed in Orange County, California.

“We’ve really turned the corner, and the business is really growing,” Vandenbrink said.

Before the growth, the steel flags were “what kept the light on,” he said, and they're still among Iron Mountain Designs' most sought-after products, with the 70-pound large size as one of the most popular.

Despite being relatively heavy, the flags can be mounted using regular dry wall anchors “and we’ve never had one fall,” Vandenbrink said. The small- and medium-size flags weigh 30 and 45 pounds, respectively, he noted.

Vandenbrink said customers have asked for flags in various applications like tables, but he has said no because for him it represents a special pride he has in the country.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s a symbol that’s been hijacked by the conservatives, and I think that’s a sad thing,” he explained. “I think (the flag) is something we should all be able to rally around. It’s not a divisive symbol in any way.”

For Vandenbrink, the flag is a symbol of a “united” America, he said, not a political statement or party.

“I’ve got very liberal family members and very conservative family members, and I try to explain to them that it's not a symbol of our government, it’s a symbol of our people,” Vandenbrink said. “It’s my flag, (and) it’s your flag. That’s why I love making them.”