Hartford plan to hang banners honoring veterans sparks debate

An example of the

An example of the "Hometown Heroes" banners proposed for downtown White River Junction, Vt., that was part of the Hartford Selectboard's agenda package. (Courtesy Town of Hartford) Courtesy Town of Hartford

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-21-2024 6:12 PM

Modified: 03-21-2024 6:21 PM


HARTFORD — A plan to install banners honoring military veterans on light poles in downtown White River Junction inspired heated disagreement during the public comment portion of a Selectboard meeting this week.

Residents and board members weighed in on the “Hometown Heroes” banner project at Tuesday’s meeting. Those who opposed the aesthetics of the displays were accused of standing in opposition to veterans, while Chairman Mike Hoyt — afflicted with COVID-19 and speaking via Zoom — worked to keep the discussion civil and on task.

“I’m ashamed to sit alongside you,” board member Lannie Collins said to his colleagues, referring specifically to Brandon Smith and Kim Souza, who had expressed opposition to the banners. “How can we say we’re not willing to honor these people who have done so much for us?”

Souza sparked controversy in 2022 when she expressed concern that a display of more than two dozen American flags on light poles in Hartford might not be a welcome sight to everyone.

Trying to cool tempers Tuesday night, Hoyt reminded the meeting attendees that the discussion was about a specific suggestion for banners, not a referendum on each speaker’s stance on the value of military service.

“I’d be hard pressed to believe that anyone doesn’t support veterans. We’re talking about putting banners up downtown; how they look aesthetically, how long they‘re up, and where they are going to be located,” he said over Zoom.

A Monday night Listserv post by Smith opposing the banners sparked controversy. “My belief is simple,” he wrote, “support troops and veterans, but oppose all wars.”

Smith’s 1,500-word post criticized military spending and expressed concern that the banners would serve as recruiting tools for the armed forces.

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In an interview Thursday, Smith, newly elected to the board on Town Meeting Day, said that he thought the Hometown Heroes project would be brought to a vote at Tuesday’s meeting, and he feared the Listserv post would be his “only opportunity to say something in a way that matters.”

“As much as I support veterans, this will change the character of downtown,” he said Thursday. “I would prefer to honor veterans in other ways.”

The Hometown Heroes initiative in Hartford began in late 2022, according to Dennis Brown, the banner project chairman.

The Selectboard agreed to allocate about $2,000 for the initiative, he said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Brown presented a proposal to purchase and install 12 vinyl banners depicting the photos and service information of honorably discharged veterans and first responders from Hartford.

The banners would be on display from Memorial Day through Veterans Day, and would use a template design provided by an outdoor sign company called Holiday Outdoor Decor.

A broader “hometown heroes” banner movement originated as a grassroots initiative in Harrisburg, Pa., in 2007, and the displays have spread to towns throughout the Northeast.

The project is “another way of saying thank you to those that have served and protected us,” Brown said at the meeting.

“I did not anticipate the incredible controversies” associated with the banners, said Hartford Treasurer Joe Major, who is involved in the project.

He considered the banners as a way to honor veterans, but “all of a sudden this became that we were celebrating the military complex and that couldn’t be any further from the truth.”

Seven residents offered comments to the board, and a number of speakers were disappointed in the appearance of the banners and suggested a tribute more in keeping with the town’s character.

Lauren Emerson, of White River Junction, said that she’d seen the same banners in other towns and found that “there is definitely a sameness to them.”

“Here is a town full of art and artists and history, and all that could be being celebrated with banners on those poles. And it would make it feel like the diverse town that it is instead of just more red, white and blue,” she said.

Souza said she favored finding more attractive and environmentally sustainable ways to honor veterans.

Purchasing “templated vinyl banners from a national company which mass produces their products in towns across the country would detract from the innovative charm that distinguishes White River Junction from other areas and which attracts visitors from near and far,” she said.

Souza also suggested that some residents may be reluctant to oppose the banner project “for fear of being perceived as unpatriotic or lacking respect for our military service members,” a perception she described as a “gross mischaracterization.”

Hoyt said that the Selectboard would revisit the issue at an upcoming meeting.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.