Last Updated: Apr 27th, 2015 - 11:04:56

Banners for fallen a personal quest
By Blake Belden, staff writer
Jun 24, 2014, 11:02

FILE PHOTO/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT The Virginia Fallen Heroes Memorial Banners were carried at Fort Lee’s Run For the Fallen in May.
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — Sitting in a wooden booth at the Colonial Italian Restaurant, more than 40 years since her brother died in Vietnam, Joann Duncan reflected on his life as if there hadn’t been a single day that had passed since his death, and remembered the very moment two years ago when she printed out a banner preserving her brother’s face forever.

This was the very first banner made for Duncan’s Virginia Fallen Heroes Memorial Banner Project, an extensive effort she organized to honor the lives and sacrifices of fallen Virginia soldiers by printing their names and faces on individual banners to be paraded through community events and military holidays.

Pfc. Stuart Franklin Hemp, Duncan’s brother, was 19 years old when he died in Vietnam. Having never owned a car or had a steady girlfriend, Hemp voluntarily joined the Marines directly after graduating from high school. He received a Silver Star for pulling three men to safety during the war, and he died 12 days following his 19th birthday.

But this is not what the general American public knew about Hemp, and veterans and their families from the Vietnam era were treated with a great deal of scorn following the war.

“If I went out into the public and said ‘I lost my brother in Vietnam,’ I would’ve gotten the response ‘Well, he got what he deserved,’” Duncan said. “I had one Gold Star mother [for the banner project] who lost her son, had to change her phone number three times because people would call and ask her if she was the mother of this boy. When she said yes, they’d tell her ‘it’s your fault your son is dead. You shouldn’t have sent him to Vietnam.’”

In 2012, Duncan went into the print shop to view the banner made for her younger brother, and four decades disappeared when she first unrolled the vinyl image.

“I was just like all of the rest of the Gold Star families. I didn’t think it would have the impact on me that it did because I had been designing that. You know, I’m looking at it. I’m talking about it, but when I unrolled it and there was this 3 by 4 foot bigger than life, in your face type thing, ... I don’t know, I cried. Even though I did it, it was the first time in over 40 years that any recognition had been given to [my brother’s] sacrifice,” Duncan said.

Having lived through the loss of her brother in Vietnam, and having experienced the sheer disrespect that Vietnam veterans received from the general public up until Operation Desert Storm, Duncan is driven to make sure that fallen soldiers get the honor and respect they deserve and are not forgotten.

Duncan first came up with the idea for the banners in 2012 when she read an article in a military magazine. A Gold Star mother had made a banner for her child, and Duncan was inspired to do the very same for soldiers in Virginia.

At no cost to the families, each banner is 3-by-4 feet in size on which is printed a large photo of the fallen soldier along with name, birthday, hometown, branch of service, rank and date of death, all at the authorization of the family.

Duncan said that the whole banner program is fueled by donations and that 100 percent of donations go toward the banners.

“There’s no administrative cost that comes out of the donations. I take care of printing, newsletters,  brochures, everything. I pay for that,” Duncan said.

The first time the banners were carried in an event was during the Welcome Home Parade in Richmond in 2012.

At this point, only 14 banners had been made for the project, and Duncan said she was terrified to march the streets with the banners because she did not know how the public would respond to them.

“I [didn’t] want these mothers carrying their sons’ banners to be disrespected. So I was a nervous wreck,” Duncan said.

The parade stretched for a mile down Boulevard from Broad Street to the Carillon Tower, and despite her initial fears, Duncan said it was a powerful and emotional march through the city.

“We started out, and as we went down Boulevard, everybody stood. The men saluted, the women were crying. I cried for one mile because it was just unbelievable the way the crowd reacted to the banners once they realized what they were. It was just unbelievable and I thought ‘this was going to work,” Duncan recalled with an amplified passion for her project.

She said that the families of the soldiers are so appreciative, and that the banners can serve to bolster the healing process.

“It doesn’t take the hurt away, it doesn’t take the loss away, but knowing that other people now know what your son looks like, now know what your son did, that helps because he’s not forgotten,” Duncan said.

Since the Welcome Home Parade, Duncan now has 57 vinyl banners telling the permanent story of a soldier’s life through an image, and she has every intention of creating a banner for every soldier from the state of Virginia who has given their life in active duty.

Since March of 2003, there have been 201 Virginia soldiers who have died while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Duncan aims to have a banner for all of them.

There are currently 11 banners for Vietnam veterans, one banner for a Navy officer who was killed on the USS Cole during the 2000 bombing and the remaining banners are soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Duncan emphasized the fact of active duty, and that any soldier serving for the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan deserve to be honored whether or not their death was a direct result of combat, including one soldier who died driving his motorcycle to his base the night before being deployed to his second tour in Afghanistan.

BLAKE BELDEN/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Joann Duncan told the story behind her banner project at the Colonial Italian Restaurant.
“I have a banner for him. He was active duty. ... I have one [soldier] where his tank turned over crossing a road. And there was a creek, and they drowned. He wasn’t in a battle. He wasn’t doing anything but driving the tank, but he died,” Duncan said. “I don’t care if [a soldier] was playing soccer. He died while he was over there. So it’s important for me that all these kids get recognized.”

Regardless of whether a relative is present during any event that the banners are carried, every single banner will get carried.

Duncan expressed endless gratitude for the services of Bill Griswold, through X-Posure Marketing, who prints all of the banners.

“I couldn’t do this program if it weren’t for him, because he gives me such a good price on the banners, and that’s his contribution to the banner program,” Duncan said.

Duncan, who now lives in Enon, said that she is now preparing for the patriotic day parade at the Chesterfield County Fair on Aug. 24.

In addition to Duncan’s banner project, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) is currently running the Call for Photos campaign, which is designed to collect a photograph for each one of the more than 58,000 men and women inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to be used for The Wall of Faces exhibit.

There are currently 269 Vietnam veterans from Virginia for which the VVMF does not have a picture.

Pictures for the Call for Photos campaign can be sent by anyone, however pictures and information sent to Duncan for the Memorial Banner Project must be authorized by a relative of the fallen soldier.

Here are the names of local Vietnam veterans who died while serving that both Duncan and the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund are still looking for pictures of:

• David L. Chaney, Hopewell, Army, died Jan.1, 1968

• Robert L. Lewis, Hopewell, Army, died Nov. 15, 1965

• Robert G. Mayes, Hopewell, Army, died May 8, 1967

• Terry P. Pierce, Hopewell, Army, died Nov. 29, 1966

• James D. Hunter, Hopewell, Army, Feb. 21, 1967

• Merrill Barnes, Colonial Heights, Army, died May 26, 1969

• Thomas L. Osteen, Jr., Colonial Heights, Marine Corps, died Nov. 19, 1970

• Walter N. Ammons, Chester, Army, died Feb. 14, 1966

• Douglas W. Murphey, Jr., Chester, Air Force, died Dec. 19, 1969

• John J. Bach III, Petersburg, Air Force, died Apr. 20, 1969

• Calvin L. Cheives, Petersburg, Army, died Mar. 30, 1966

• Calvin E. Cooke, Petersburg, Army, died May 22, 1969

• James A. Dickens, Petersburg, Army, died Feb. 8, 1967

• Willie Hooper, Jr., Petersburg, Army, died Sep. 2, 1970

• Billy R. Jefferson, Petersburg, Army, Oct. 7, 1968

• Robert L. Pulliam, Petersburg, Army, Jan. 29, 1971

• George E. Roye, Petersburg, Army, Nov. 10, 1970

• Thomas W. Warren, Petersburg, Marine Corps, died Nov. 23, 1968

• Thomas R. Wells, Petersburg, Marine Corps, died Aug. 22, 1968

In addition to these Vietnam veterans, Duncan also provided a couple of names of local soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan for which she hopes to have banners made:

• Pfc. Michael W. Pyron, Hopewell, Army

• Staff Sgt. Jonathan P. Schmidt, Petersburg, Army

• Pfc. Michael M. Carey, Prince George, Marine Corps

For more information or submission to the Banner Project, Duncan can be contacted at (804) 898-1816 or Duncan asks that anyone who emails should enter ‘Banner’ into the subject line so that she can make it a high priority.

For more information or submission to the Call for Photos campaign, the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund can be contacted at (202) 393-0090 or via email at

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