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Veteran banners set to fly once again thanks to Knights of Columbus

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 5/18/2024

May 18—Carmela Quintana had a banner made for her father, U.S. Army veteran Peter Quintana, in 2021 as part of Santa Fe's popular Hometown Heroes program.

She was able to surprise him with the honor before he died on Veterans Day later that year.

"I'm not the only family member who has a story like that," said Quintana, an Air Force veteran. She serves as commander of the American Legion Lucero Y Nava Post 12, which took over Hometown Heroes in 2022, when officials with the city of Santa Fe said a 2019 measure funding the program violated an anti-donation clause in state law.

When the banners — each displaying a veteran's portrait, rank, military branch and years of service — came down from local streetlight poles last fall, Quintana announced the post no longer could sponsor the program, citing the financial burden of installing more than 300 of the standards along thoroughfares throughout the city.

For months, it seemed unlikely the banners would fly this year from Memorial Day to Veterans Day, as they had since 2019.

Enter Richard Martinez.

A 2022 recipient of The New Mexican's 10 Who Made a Difference award, Martinez is the driving force behind many volunteer efforts in the community — from delivering food and supplies to Northern New Mexicans displaced by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire to building a prayer garden near Santa María de La Paz Catholic Community.

When Don Christy, a local Air Force vet who brought the Hometown Heroes program to town, asked Martinez to help save the effort, the longtime Santa Fe resident spent months on the task until he not only found a way to ensure the banners fly this year, but also put in place what he hopes will be a grassroots solution for the program's long-term success.

"This is an opportunity to bring our community together," said Martinez.

Martinez said local organizations he approached wanted to help save the program but could not take on the responsibility of running it. He then turned to the Santa Fe Knights of Columbus Assembly 685 at Santa María de La Paz, which agreed to take the helm. Now, under the Knights' leadership, several groups are working together to keep the program alive.

The banners are scheduled to be installed early Tuesday morning — just in time for Memorial Day weekend.

Martinez said that while he is not a military veteran, his father and father-in-law are, and the program is close to his heart. His goal, he added, is for the community to have a shared sense of responsibility in its success, something he feels may have been lacking in the past.

His father, Salomon Martinez, a "farm boy from Colorado," served on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet during World War II, which played a key role in the pivotal Battle of Midway in 1942.

Martinez said he learned a lot from his father, who would tell him, "Don't complain about something if you don't plan on doing something about it."

Twisting in the wind

The banner program, which prompted angst and controversy over the years, started quietly enough: Hometown Heroes began in 2019 with the first 20 banners saluting military members along Cerrillos Road. Initially supported by the city, the program quickly grew to a few hundred banners in ensuing years.

It ran into trouble in 2022, when the city first announced it could no longer fund the program and then said its new streetlight poles along Cerrillos Road were unfit to hold the banners. The program, postponed long beyond Memorial Day that year, also faced a delay in receiving new brackets needed to hang the banners on light poles on downtown streets identified as alternate locations.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stepped in to help keep the program going in 2022, allowing banners to be hung along state-maintained St. Francis Drive. Public Service Company of New Mexico also pitched in, installing hundreds of banners on light poles in late summer for a shortened, two-month display.

But the program faced another delay last year, when a City Council measure renewing the program wasn't approved early enough to install the 342 banners before Memorial Day weekend. Unhappy veterans and others who'd become accustomed to seeing the banners fly through a Santa Fe summer howled.

Mayor Alan Webber, the recipient of some of those complaints, commended Martinez and the Knights of Columbus for their willingness to take on the project and to see it through.

"This is a testimony to the energy and commitment that Richard and the Knights have," he said in an interview last week. "It's not a small challenge to pull all of this together."

Changes, challenges and community spirit

This year's program will look different from its predecessor. A scaled-back version promises some changes, which Martinez acknowledged some people might not like. He has capped the number of banners at 200 to make the program more manageable, he said, and families will be required to store their banners between Veterans Day, when they come down, and Memorial Day, when they go up again. Families also will have to pay $100 to replace a banner if it becomes damaged.

If a significant wait list to display banners emerges in future years, he said, the Knights of Columbus could decide to rotate them each year to ensure more people have a chance to see their family members honored.

After he collected banners from American Legion Post 12, Martinez said, he realized about 80% "weren't in any condition to be put back up" and needed to be reprinted. They also needed to be made slightly narrower to fit the brackets on the city light poles.

He reached out to families with banners, asking if they would be willing to pay for their banner to be reprinted. He was able to get 151 to agree to cover the cost for this year's display.

The banners will be installed near the entrances to the city — along Cerrillos Road from Interstate 25 to Airport Road; on St. Francis Drive from Siringo Road to San Mateo Road; and on Alamo Drive at St. Francis, the site of the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

"What a sight as you're coming into the city," Martinez said.

His biggest challenge was finding a way to make the program financially feasible, he said, adding many local businesses stepped up to offer support.

Allegra Marketing Print Mail is creating the new banners at what Martinez said was a reasonable cost and also donated time and services to redesigning them — adding a slightly different background than in years past and the Knights of Columbus and city of Santa Fe logos.

A-San Mateo Mini Warehouses donated a unit where the banners will be stored until they are installed.

Local tree removal companies Coates Tree Service and Southwest Fire Defense will donate their labor and equipment to install banners, along with Comcast. Santa Fe County will provide traffic safety services while the crews are at work.

"Santa Fe has a long history of veteran service, and this is the least we can do," said County Commissioner Justin Greene, who helped arrange for the county to provide traffic safety.

The Food Depot, a regional food bank based in Santa Fe, donated $500 to the program. Spokeswoman Amanda Bergel said members of the Knights of Columbus volunteer at the food bank, and the nonprofit was eager to return the favor.

"We're really proud of the veterans from New Mexico and so we're happy to support the project," she said.

Meanwhile, the city provided legal support to keep the program running.

Martinez is working on a new website for Hometown Heroes and said he hopes it can include additional information about the veterans honored on the banners.

"These people were all willing to put their lives on the line for us so we could have a better life — and they didn't even know us," he said. "Talk about an unselfish act."

With the banners about to go up once again, Carmela Quintana is grateful the program will continue.

"In New Mexico we have such a commitment to military service," she said. "It's part of who we are."

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