Mass. highway troop banners may lose homemade spirit

Homemade banners are unsafe and should be replaced with metal signs, says the state highway department.

Courtesy of Jim Wareing
Safety hazard? Banners made by Jim Wareing to honor local soldiers hang on an overpass near his home in Methuen, Mass.

On an overpass that crosses Route 495 in Chelmsford, Mass., Jim Wareing maintains a permanent tribute to Lance Cpl. Andrew J. Zabierek, who died in Iraq in 2004. Flags and banners line the fence along the bridge that Andrew's father, Steve Zabierek, drives over everyday on his way to work. The town has even officially christened it the Lance Cpl. Andrew J. Zabierek Memorial Bridge.

"[It's] very significant to that family, to me, and to all the other troops who are returning home," says Mr. Wareing, who makes similar bridge tributes whenever a serviceman or servicewoman from his Boston suburb dies or returns home.

But there's a problem: the Massachusetts Highway Department says displays like Wareing's pose a safety hazard. It plans to remove them. "We were concerned that one of them would drop onto the windshield of a car," says Luisa Paiewonsky, commissioner of the highway department.

Still, sympathetic to the military support groups' intent, officials recently offered to install alternative metal "Thank you" signs – bolted down for safety – to welcome returning military personnel. But many veterans groups reject that solution, saying the signs are too impersonal and an affront to those in uniform.

The two sides continue to talk over the issue and say they hope to reach a consensus in the "near future."

"Why is it that they have to continually go after veterans when the war is on for stupid, little things like this?" asks John "Jake" Comer, past national commander of the American Legion. "The families that put the signs up there – [like] "Welcome home, Jim" – that's a personal relationship for the families, and it's all they've got to live for, that one day Joe or Jim will come home and he'll see that he was represented and recognized by his family and his friends."

Linda Noone decorates a bridge over Interstate 93 in Reading, Mass., with American flags to show support for military personnel such as her daughter, a marine and an Iraq veteran. "The flag stands for more than just what's going on today. It represents my father who served, my grandfather, my daughter, and hopefully my grandchildren," says Mrs. Noone, who obtained permits for her signs. "Those metal signs, they don't mean that."

Highway officials insist they've endeavored to make their signs more human. "We certainly understand and recognize the feelings of people who have relatives serving," says Commisioner Paiewonsky. One in 9 highway workers in Massachusetts is a veteran, and some of these former service members designed the sign that's up for consideration.

The move to remove homemade signs from Massachusetts overpasses is not solely military-related. The state has seen a proliferation of homemade banners, from political endorsements to commercial advertisements, and even marriage proposals, says Paiewonsky. Many are forgotten and left to the elements.

"I blame people who put [up] the sheets and signs and then leave them up there for months," says Wareing, who drives across Massachusetts twice a year taking down abandoned birthday greetings and presidential endorsements. Except for two displays, he leaves tributes up for two weeks before giving them to the surviving family.

Noone acknowledges the safety issue and says she checks on her bridge every day. Storms have ripped flags but none have yet come loose, she says. Wareing says his displays have survived gusts up to 75 miles per hour.

Some troop advocates see merit in the highway department's argument. It's safety first for William Butler, first vice commander of the AMVETS Department of Massachusetts. "I have a nephew right now who served over there, and he's down in Walter Reed [Medical Center]. And do you think I would love to put a big banner up over the whole highway? Yes, but no because a good wind could blow it off, and it could hit the window of a truck or a car, and all of the sudden you've got a big accident."

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