Downtown Aiken's major intersections have some fresh faces and color in place today, with dozens of "Hometown Heroes" banners having been installed Thursday afternoon in honor or memory of local veterans, just in time for Memorial Day.
The Aiken County Veterans Council, continuing a tradition that was begun in October 2019, has 34 two-sided banners in place, saluting 68 veterans with Aiken County connections. North Augusta has 20 in place, also at major downtown intersections.
Watching the process was Army veteran Linda Caldwell, who has helped guide the program's establishment and growth. "I think it's a way of recognizing the veterans who live in Aiken County and recognizing their service and thanking them for their service," she said.
There are "some veterans who don't want to shine the light on themselves," she added. "They've made it clear to me that they don't want to do that because they don't consider themselves heroes, but I always tell them they, in some way, are a hero to someone, and certainly to the citizens of this country, because they put on a uniform and raised their right hand and swore to protect and defend these United States."
Caldwell, treasurer of the veterans council, said plans are for the banners to stay in place through July 4, and go up again in late October, to stay in place through Veterans Day. The banners represent a family affair for her, as she served in the Army Nurse Corps from 1966-1969, including a year in Vietnam. Her husband Brent is an Air Force veteran (1967-72).
Banners cover several generations – from World War II through the current efforts against terrorism – and the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard are represented, as is a Merchant Marine member who served in World War II.
The late Walter Chelchowski has one of the more unusual records, as he was drafted into the Army for WWII service in England and Italy, and joined the Naval Reserves after being discharged from the Army. Following his discharge from the Naval Reserves, he joined the Air Force, and during the course of his career, he served in Vietnam, being stationed in Tuy Hoa Air Base, near the North China Sea.
Chelchowski's son, an Air Force veteran, is represented at the same intersection. "Dad and I were in Vietnam the same year," he said, recalling 1969-70. "He was up in Tuy Hoa and I was in Saigon at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Dad got down to see me three times and I got up to see him twice. It wasn't just my father. It was kind of like battle buddies."
Linda Caldwell noted that her husband – her future husband, at the time – was in Vietnam in 1969, at the same time as the younger Chelchowski, and the two aircraft maintenance officers met and had Christmas dinner together that year in Saigon. Years later, they wound up living in the same town where they reside to this day.
Helping put the banners into place Thursday afternoon was David Turno, with the Aiken Department of Public Safety, with teammates including Tim Coyle and Carl Gunter. Turno also had a personal connection with the banners, as they included one in honor of one of his brothers, an Army veteran who served in what some banners note as GWOT ("Global War on Terrorism"); and another in memory of the Turno boys' father, Don, a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific during World War II.
Caldwell said she thoroughly enjoyed her role in helping turn small images (received on a computer) into big banners. She recalled one participant who bought a banner and saw it for the first time Thursday afternoon, describing the experience as "'more emotional than I thought it would be.'"
Leftover funds from the banner sales go into the veterans council's account to help vets facing trouble in such areas as temporary housing and overdue bills (such as heating and rent), with consideration on a case-by-base basis; and also to pay for repairs to banners that may be inadvertently damaged by such causes as high winds.
The project is ongoing, and banners cost $75 per side. For more information, visit www.aikencountyveterans.org.