By T. Anthony BellJune 18, 2012
FORT LEE, Va. (June 184, 2012)- At an Armed Forces Day Welcome Home Parade in Richmond, Va., last month, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Candis R. Martin was one of several people who joined the procession carrying large banners displaying an image -- hers showing a smiling, Stetson-wearing son, 1st Lt. Thomas M. Martin.
The banners also showed the service member's branch of service, hometown, birth date and something that is a source of pain for Martin -- the date of death.
"To me, it just shouldn't be that way, and it's very difficult to see it in print," she said in reference to the date as opposed to the promise of her son's young life. First Lt. Martin passed away more than four years ago in Iraq after sustaining wounds from an insurgent attack. He was just four days beyond his 27th birthday.
Despite the enormous sense of loss she still feels today, Martin said she was overflowing with pride as she carried the photo-banner during the parade. She not only likes to keep her son's memory alive, but she also likes to share his smile and likeness with hundreds of people who have grown accustomed to hearing about the sacrifices of the fallen but not seeing who was behind them. It's the thing that makes memorial ceremonies and homecoming events memorable, she said.
"We marched with those banners in the Richmond homecoming parade. (Those pictured) never got to experience that welcome home they longed for," said Martin, a reserve-component quartermaster warrant officer personnel developer. "It was nice that we -- the families of the fallen -- could take them and carry them proudly."
The tribute banners are the work of Joann Duncan, junior vice president, Ladies Auxiliary, Veterans of Foreign Wars Robert E. Lee Post 2239 in Colonial Heights. Duncan, the wife of Vietnam veteran Donnie Duncan and sister of Marine Pfc. Stuart F. Hemp, who was killed in Vietnam, got the idea to create the banners after reading about a similar effort in another state.
After she shared her aspirations with fellow auxiliary members, they decided to provide support for the project and the Fallen Heroes Memorial Banners project was born.
"My aim is to honor all of the fallen in the state of Virginia," said Joann Duncan.
After getting support from the auxiliary, Joann Duncan pushed the idea to the Hampton Roads chapter of Gold Star Mothers, one of many organizations created as a support group for families who have lost loved ones on active duty. She received authorization from one of the mothers to produce a banner and explained the donation-funded, no-cost banners would be presented to the public at "different types of ceremonies -- wherever we can get them where the public can see them."
Several Gold Star families have since authorized Joann Duncan to produce banners. She has more in the plans, aiming first to finish off the 186 Virginia military members killed during the wars in Southwest Asia, then start on the roughly 1,500 Virginia military members who died during the Vietnam War.
Duncan said the gist of the effort is to recognize families of the fallen while lending some measure of uniqueness to the sacrifices of each service member.
"We want to honor Gold Star families and put a face with the name," she said, "because you can listen to the news, read the newspaper, hear the names and it's with you today. By the end of the week, it's kind of faded away. Once the banners are in public view, and you look at the eyes of the service members and see what they looked like, it puts a more personal touch to the name and keeps people from forgetting. This is what the Gold Star Mothers want."
VFW member Donnie Duncan said he has supported his wife every step of the way. His motivation to support the project hit a high point when the first banner yielded by the project -- that of Pfc. Hemp -- was unveiled.
"When we had it done, and I got to see it, it just ... it blew my mind," said Donnie Duncan, noting he had never met Hemp. "I was ready to take on the project, to help her in any way, shape or form."
Joann Duncan said she witnessed firsthand during the Richmond parade the banners' unique power to elicit something in viewers she doesn't always see. She described the parade scene and how she felt carrying her brother's banner and marching along with the other Gold Star family members.
"As the banners came down the boulevard, I wasn't sure what kind of response we would get from the public," she recalled. "Once they looked at them and realized what those banners were, they stood and they clapped and the military saluted and the mothers cried. There were five mothers and one father in front of me and I thought, 'How proud I am to be able to walk down this boulevard with you.'"
That sense of pride has moved Joann Duncan to go about the banner project with a keen sense of duty, much like those she wants to honor.
"I want these young men and women to be remembered," she said. "I want their faces out there; I want the public to look in the eyes and see what wonderful kids these were."
Joann Duncan will present her idea on a broader level later this month when she attends the American Gold Star Mothers Convention.
"I am hoping that those mothers will take this project and start it in their home states, and we can have banners across America to honor all of the fallen," she said.
The Fallen Heroes Memorial Banners program is not limited to military members killed during the current war. Anyone who has lost a military member while on active duty is eligible, said Joann Duncan.
"If a family came up to me and said they wanted to honor someone from the Vietnam War, I would do it," she said. "If someone wanted me to do a banner for a family member lost in the Korean War, I would do it. There's no limit."
Duncan said the banners cost roughly $50 to produce. More than 20 have been created thus far.
For more information on the Fallen Heroes Memorial Banners program, call (804) 898-1816.