Meet Chris Cruise: The veteran who turns bourbon barrels into American pride
Purpose is powerful. It gives you a reason to step into each day and push through whatever challenges you face. It gives you something to look forward to, and to believe in, and to be proud of. For some people, their primary purpose becomes so entwined with their identity that when it is removed, they feel as though they are falling into an abyss and cannot climb out.
This can happen to someone who endures a tragic loss or a common one: whose marriage ends, whose children grow up and leave, or who retires. Replacing one purpose with another is easier said than done for many people. Army veteran Chris Cruise knows this firsthand, and he’s found an innovative, patriotic outlet to meet that challenge for himself and others.
The first time Chris Cruise’s sense of purpose was ripped away from him, he was still in college.
Football was his passion and the one thing he centered his focus on. In Southern Mississippi, he says, that’s about all there is to do. From third grade straight into his second year of college, it was what he believed he would always do – until his college coach straight up told him he wasn’t good enough to move forward.
“I didn’t really know how to react,” Chris remembers, “other than to continue to do something.” That “something” would not be college.
College for Chris had been more about an outlet to play football than anything else. He loved the camaraderie of the team, and the discipline, and the physical component. He needed all of those things he’d grown so accustomed to. His father is an army veteran and told Chris the military would be a perfect fit for him.
“Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment,” jokes Chris,” but I decided to join the army.”
Bye-Bye college. Hello Army.
It was one year after 9/11. A commitment to the military had become tantamount to a commitment to combat, and Chris deployed to Iraq.
His combat experience is not something he volunteers specifics about. Like so many others who’ve been there and done that, he instead recedes into himself when asked about it, and offers up only that it was in combat where he experienced the highest levels of loyalty and camaraderie he’d ever felt.
“You don’t get that anywhere else,” he says. “I think everyone should experience it because there truly is a brotherhood in the military.”
All in all, Chris Cruise points to his time in the military as the best thing he ever did.
It’s also the path that led him to meet his wife.
Shortly before he left the military, Chris was tasked with transporting a “knucklehead” in his unit to his new residence at the Fort Knox prison. While the new inmate checked into prison, Chris and his buddies checked out the local bar and Chris’s smile makes an appearance as he jokes that he “got lucky in Kentucky” by meeting the love of his life in that bar.
He’d never intended to be a career soldier. He’d entered into the military with an intent to serve honorably and fully, and see what it was like – as well as pay off his debt from two years of college.
His own mission accomplished, and seeing how his buddies’ marriages suffered from deployments, Chris knew he wanted a different life with Amber.
“I knew I wanted to raise a family and have a barbecue grill in the backyard and be able to be home.”
Amber made it clear that’s what she also wanted, and the decision for him was an easy one.
That was the easy part. The hard part was finding the same sense of purpose and camaraderie he’d felt in the military. Staying in touch with his fellow veterans is nice, but not nearly the same as working side by side with them on a shared mission with meaning. His new career is one he enjoys, but there was still a void.
There was also the added component of re-acclimating to civilian life in terms of learning how to relax. He struggled with things after service that had never been a challenge before: sitting in a restaurant without needing to face the door, being in crowds, overall anxiety – he didn’t quite know what to do with himself or how to adapt his heightened sense of awareness and constant wariness into his new life as a husband and a father. He grew snappy with the kids and his restlessness grew.
He still missed that camaraderie and craved an outlet for his need to serve something greater.
His wife Amber is the one who gave him a new mission that grew into what has become Cruise Custom Flags.
It started with a book from Pinterest. “I want you to make our dining room table,” she told him, as she thrust the book into his hands. He’d never made a table before and had no real idea how to do so but he’d been given a mission and he wasn’t about to not fulfill it. So he and his son got the wood and he figured out to make a table.
He also figured out that woodwork was therapeutic for him, He’d found his happy place – a place where his mind could both rest and work at the same time, in balanced concentration and clarity of purpose.
He and his wife sat down to talk, and an idea began forming. She wanted him to make something tied to Kentucky for his next project. They both also wanted the project to honor military service, as her father is also a veteran.
There are not many things that scream “Kentucky” more than bourbon, they decided, and not many greater symbols of military service than the flag. The first custom flag he made from a repurposed bourbon barrel hung in their home. The next two were Christmas gifts for both of their fathers.
The flags were so well received, he made more for some friends and family. Word spread, and requests began pouring in.
One thing led to another, and today Chris and Amber work together to make Cruise Custom Flags run.
Family pitches in, with Amber’s mom cutting the felt for the flags, her dad making the smaller flags, and Amber managing the shipping, logistics, and running their household while Chris works his full-time job and them handcrafts flags after work.
They’ve moved from their garage to their own location, and they’ve hired other veterans to work with them. So each flag is personally made from the hands of a veteran. To Chris, there is no one else who would put as much pride into the work as a veteran.
Besides, he says – What’s more American than a veteran handcrafted flag made out of a bourbon barrel? Bourbon, after all, is “America Spirit by law.”
He also takes great pleasure in seeing how this work is as therapeutic for others as it is for him. It’s a win-win. He’s been able to hire veterans struggling to find work and purpose. Those veterans can now provide for their families and find peace in their work. He’s had fun being featured on an Evan Williams Bourbon bottle, and sharing his story on national news. But mostly, he just loves the new purpose he’s found.
He sums it all up nicely by saying, “ When you buy these flags it’s much more than just a bourbon barrel flag. It’s for the greater good.”
Update: Since interviewing Chris Cruise in 2019 America was hit with the Coronavirus Pandemic. Thousands of Americans joined Cruise Customs Flags in support of the medical frontline community when the purchased their Special Edition “America — One Heartbeat” Flag. Together they purchased of over 5K flags and were able to donate $70K to the medical community in Louisville that is fighting on the front lines to defeat COVID-19 🇺🇸.