FORT LEE, Va. – Fueled by her brother’s memory, a Gold Star family member from nearby Chesterfield County continues an 11-year mission of ensuring fallen military members are not forgotten.
Joann Duncan began creating tribute banners in 2010, and they have steadily gained notoriety as a familiar fixture of memorial ceremonies and community parades in the local area. They are the centerpiece of the opening “survivor’s lap” at Fort Lee’s annual Run for the Fallen observance, the next iteration of which is set for Sept. 11 at Williams Stadium.
“I started this wanting to do something, not sure how it would be received, for our Gold Star families,” Duncan said of the project. “I wanted to honor their loved ones – those they sent away and traded that life for a folded flag. That’s so important and people need to remember. So, I make these banners and put those faces out there so the public can realize these are people and not just names; individuals who have wives, children and brothers and sisters.”
The loss of her stepbrother, Pfc. Stuart Franklin Hemp, serves as her inspiration. Duncan spoke of his determination to enlist in the Marines as soon as he finished high school and how he lived up to the solemn promise of his oath right up until the last moments of his life.
He died in 1969 at age 19 while serving in Vietnam.
Due to national sentiment at that time in history, fighting men like Hemp received little appreciation for their sacrifices. Attitudes toward the war leaned toward the vitriolic, Duncan said. It was common practice among returning military members to shed uniforms for civilian attire at public airports to avoid shouted “baby killer” insults or people spitting at them. Welcome-home ceremonies, in general, were far from the joyous, celebratory events they are today.
“It was just a lot going on at that time,” Duncan acknowledged. “Thank God it’s different. The people returning from deployment these days are welcomed back. It wasn’t the same when my brother was in the Marines.”
Indeed, public perception has changed. Military service is widely respected and often acknowledged at baseball games, holiday events, church services and more. On such occasions, Duncan’s pictorial banners allow the public to see the people lost in service to the nation – sometimes in casual poses or in attire providing clues to the person, allowing onlookers to gain fuller appreciation for the sacrifice and the individual’s humanity.
Not surprisingly, the first banner Duncan created was in tribute to her brother. Having selected a photo of him in uniform, she said the unexpected happened when the printer asked her to review the result.
“I really didn’t think it would have the impact it did,” Duncan remembered. “When he unrolled the banner and I saw my brother’s face, it just brought everything back.”
The poster’s sheer size – 3-by-4 feet – generated an unexpected level of intimacy, overwhelming her to tears.
“It was so emotional because it was so ‘In your face,’” recalled Duncan. “It took my breath away.”
When she makes banners for fellow Gold Star family members, first gaining their permission, Duncan said it evokes in them the same sense of pride and consolation. To date, she has produced 78 such products, 15 of them depicting Vietnam-era veterans.
“It blows families away when they first see it,” she observed. “When the banners are out there on Memorial Day or whenever I can get them out, it’s such a healing tool for them to see their loved one is not forgotten.”
Duncan charges nothing for the banners, seeing it as a civic and patriotic duty. The compensation for the work and cost invested, in her words, “is felt in her heart” every time someone responds to the final product in a positive way.
“I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, ‘The man on that banner over there, I served with him,’ or ‘I went to school with him,’” Duncan shared. “People are seeing them and remembering. … It just keeps bringing those individuals to mind – those forgotten Virginians who died in Vietnam; I don’t want those boys to be forgotten.”
To state the obvious, Duncan still feels the pain of losing her “little brother.” The siblings shared a deep bond that was cultivated after the tragic loss of their mother. The youngsters were three years and three months old, respectively. Raised by their grandparents, Duncan watched over her brother in motherly ways because “we were all that we had,” in her words.
Despite their close relationship, Hemp joined the military without her knowledge. Duncan implied he did it to avoid her anticipated objections.
“All I could say is, ‘You didn’t have to do this, you know.’ He said, ‘No, I have to do this.’”
Compelled to serve, Hemp did not have a car or steady girlfriend, and “never got to do so many of the things a normal 18-year-old would get to do just coming out of high school,” Duncan said.
Upon completing his initial military training as a Marine rifleman at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Hemp headed to South Vietnam. According to accounts Duncan heard, he earned a reputation for benevolence – often giving water to those who ran out and dry socks to fellow Devil Dogs with wet feet.
On Aug. 22 while on patrol in Quang Tri province, Hemp and two squads assigned to Company L, Third Battalion, Third Marine Division, received heavy small-arms fire in a valley north of Vandegrift Combat Base.
“They were trapped,” Duncan said of their position. “My brother brought two (injured) Marines to safety and went back out for a third one.”
During that attempt, he took a bullet to his femoral artery and went down in an exposed position. Because rescuing him would put others at risk, “Private First Class Hemp steadfastly refused to allow his companions to come to his aid and subsequently succumbed to his extensive injuries,” read his Silver Medal award citation.
That kind of selflessness in the face of battle is “worthy of remembrance,” Duncan noted, also adding that it serves as inspiration to future fighting forces and stands as a source of pride for surviving families. It is one reason she has committed to creating banners for every Virginian lost in Vietnam and the wars in Southwest Asia.
“There’s 1,308 from Vietnam,” she conceded. “There are 210 who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would create banners for all of them if I could, but I don't think I'll live long enough.”
Which is why the 74-year-old has contingency plan. She said her daughter, Lecia Wilmoph, will take over if it gets to be too much. She’s simply waiting on her marching orders to “help people remember.”
Those interested in submitting images to the portrait project can call Duncan at 804-530-1956 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org using the subject line “banner.”
For more information about Fort Lee’s upcoming Run for the Fallen observance, call 804-734-6445 or visit lee.armymwr.com/programs/runforthefallen.