Military banners pay tribute to Toronto veterans

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE — Toronto is expressing its appreciation to Toronto-area residents who have or are serving their country through a military banner program initiated by the Toronto American Legion Post 86 with support from the city of Toronto. Relatives or friends purchase the banners which have and continue to be hung throughout the Gem City. More than 160 have been erected in recent weeks. Top photo, John Watts, right, a Legion trustee and 4th Ward councilman, is overseeing the project. City maintenance and repair department workers Steve Hubbard, left, and Rod Henry were busy hanging some of the banners Wednesday. -- Janice Kiaski

TORONTO — An undertaking in Toronto is making the salute to veterans something extra special this Memorial Day and beyond.

City maintenance and repair workers Rod Henry, Steve Hubbard and Don Starky were busy Wednesday hanging military banners from utility poles throughout the Gem City — banners that salute local men and women who have served their country in its times of need.

The 2-by-3-foot double-sided banners feature military photos with information about the veteran, including branch of service, rank, division/squad, conflict and medals of valor. They also note if they were prisoners of war, missing in action or killed in action.

The banner program honors Toronto-area men and women who have or are serving in times of war or in times of peace, according to John Watts, who is overseeing the project. Order driven, it spans from World War I to present day.

The project to pay tribute to local military was first broached by the Toronto American Legion Post 86, according to Watts, who is a Legion trustee and also the city’s 4th Ward councilman.

“We looked into it about two years ago,” Watts explained, noting the subject came up when someone had admired and mentioned what Weirton had done with military banners displayed there.

Legion representatives ultimately connected with Weirton officials for insight and met Harry Munson, whose HTM Designs in Castle Shannon prints the banners and maintains a website — troopbanners.com. It lists the names and photos of honorees, including Toronto’s.

“If you get on www.troopbanners.com/Toronto, you will see all the banners we have up already,” Watts said.

Although the project was looked in to, the initial pursuit got a back-burner seat.

“We didn’t follow through,” Watts said. The topic was revisited in October, however, and with it came the first Toronto banner. It was of Toronto’s own Marine Corps Sgt. Nathan Rock, who was killed in action in 2005 in Iraq.

“The guys didn’t know we had had a banner made up,” Watts said, explaining that seeing one prompted the decision to move forward.

Watts has been spearheading the effort ever since.

“We get 30 to 35 a week now,” Watts said of the application and order response. “We’ve got more than, just on the books now, probably about 230 pictures,” he said.

“When we get done this weekend, I will have 165 up throughout Toronto, but I have another 60 some on the books that are ordered,” Watts added.

The one-time cost is $120. Checks can be made payable to the American Legion Post 86 Military Banner Program and dropped off or mailed to the Toronto American Legion Post 86 at 415 Market St., Toronto, OH 43964. The phone number is (740) 537-9317.

Also available are 12-by-18-inch replica yard banners at $20 each.

“When the people purchase these, they are actually theirs,” Watts said. “All we’re doing is putting them up. If people want us to take them down and give them to them, they’re more than welcome because they did purchase them. We are putting them up in time for Memorial Day, and we will take them down after Veterans Day in November. They won’t be up year-round. They will be cleaned and put away. The city will take them down,” he said.

The project has caught on only in recent weeks.

“We just actually started putting it out in March, like the middle of March, letting people know we are going with it, and the goal was to get as much up as we could by Memorial Day,” Watts said.

Once the first 12 banners were erected, the project took off.

“Once we got those up and people saw the way they were, it just took off from there,” Watts said.

Support has come in many ways, Watts said, including from Greg Barto, a fellow Legion member, who has helped, for example, with uploading photos; George Komar, who promoted the project through a Facebook presence; and city officials.

Watts praised the support of Mayor John Parker and Service Director Alex Porrecca.

“The city has been great with this,” Watts said. “They have purchased cardboard containers for storage and are going to put them in the city building for us, and then they will put them back up.”

Surprised but not surprised is Watts’ reaction to the response, noting Toronto to be a patriotic place.

“I talked to the guy Munson at the company, I had to call about something one time, and he told me straight up that he is amazed at what we’ve done in six weeks, maybe two months, that we’ve got that much of a response,” Watts said.

Banners can be ordered for any veteran in the Toronto area, including Richmond, Empire, Stratton or Pleasant Hill, for example, according to Watts.

The banners will give the city’s Memorial Day observance at 10 a.m. Monday at the gazebo an added touch, Watts agrees.

“I just want to say how proud I am of my husband because this is a legacy to our city,” noted Watts’ wife, the former Melissa Bodnar, who has helped with applications. “When I drive down, I see my grandfather, my father, my two brothers, my two uncles, my cousin and my husband and his brothers, so it’s like a history of our town actually. There are so many names that we grew up with in our beautiful city. We’re really proud,” Melissa said.

The project has involved a lot of time and effort, but it has been well worth it, according to Watts.

“The feedback has been great,” he said.

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)