NORTH TONAWANDA – It is a war that has raged on for more than a decade, and for those who are not touched directly, it’s easy to go on with your everyday lives without thinking about a war half way across the globe.
But Sally Urban wants people to drive down the city’s main thoroughfare, Payne Avenue, look up and see the banners of their neighbors, active-duty “Hometown Heroes” who, she said, “have put their lives on hold to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for all of us.”
Urban understands the sacrifice more than most.
Her son, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Corporal Timothy Serwinowski, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010. Her stepson, Air Force Staff Sgt. David Urban, served two tours in Iraq and wants to volunteer to go to Afghanistan. She said a banner was purchased for her stepson last year, but she had to convince him that he is indeed a hero for choosing to serve the country.
“The kids are over there putting their lives on the line everyday – all day long. People don’t understand unless they have a service member over there or know someone. I didn’t either until the boys went over,” said Urban, her voice cracking with emotion.
Mayor Robert G. Ortt said Urban has used a very tragic thing to do something good for her community.
After her son’s death, Urban said it took a year to get the program off the ground. Her son’s banner was the first to be hung outside of City Hall on Payne Avenue in 2012, but she wants the banners to represent the city’s active duty military who are currently fighting overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, with banners hung up and down Payne Avenue.
In the first year there were eight banners, and this year that has grown to 14 banners, but Urban said ideally she’d like to see hundreds of banners, which can be removed and presented to the serviceman or servicewoman when they return from duty.
A banner was hung recently to honor veteran Marine Cpl. Paul Schaus, who lost both his legs and a finger to a land mine in Afghanistan in 2009. The cost for the Schaus banner was donated by Meadow Elementary School, where Urban is a teacher’s aide.
“I didn’t do it for Tim, though I know he would have liked it,” Urban said of her son, “But to show that there is a war going on and these kids – our neighbors – are over there.”
Urban said she modeled the flags on a similar Hometown Heroes banners program in Spencerport, but she said similar programs are in under way other cites across the nation and credited the city for its support and assistance.
Ortt said he feels in tune with veterans and their families since served in Afghanistan in 2008 before being elected mayor. He was a first lieutenant in the New York Army National Guard.
“When this was brought to our attention, I thought this was a great idea,” the mayor said. “It really has taken off.”
He added, “Today less than one percent of the American population serves in the military and sometimes it can be easy to forget what these brave young men and women do. Easy to forget that there is still conflict going on in Afghanistan if you don’t have someone in your family serving in the military or are not directly impacted. I think this is the way to remember that right here in N.T., people are putting their lives on the line and are serving our country very proudly and we haven’t forgotten them.
Urban said she doesn’t want to wait until it is too late to honor heroes who are serving in the war.
“I tried to tell Tim I was proud of him,” she said. “I didn’t understand a lot of it until they were there, in the thick of it. We spoke to him on the phone, but you don’t understand until they come back and tell you. Tim was on foot patrol for days and days at a time.”
She noted how her son was forced to go for five and a half months without access to a shower.
“He said you pretty much can’t trust anybody. They live in fear for their lives there,” she said. She said her son served for two years in Afghanistan before he was killed on June 21, 2010.
“I want people to be aware. I want people to appreciate them and what they are doing for their country. There is a war and there’s still kids dying over there all the time,” she said. “They sacrifice their lives for each other.”
Urban said there are still quite a few residents of North Tonawanda who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan and ideally she’d like to see a few banners on every block.
The banners are made in North Tonawanda by Signtech, installed by city crews and stored by the city in the winter. The cost to sponsor a banner is $200 each and Urban is encouraging businesses to sponsor banners for a service member.
To inquire about a banner, contact the mayor’s office at 695-8540.