Vandergrift, PA – The Vandergrift borough council has determined that a Hometown Hero banner honoring a fallen police officer is an “insult to veterans,” and voted to have it removed from a utility pole outside the local police department.
“If they wanted to honor first responders, there’s another way they could do it,” council member James Rametta said after the five-to-one vote on Tuesday, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s an insult to veterans to have anyone up there besides veterans,” he said.
Despite the council’s opinion, the Hometown Hero banner program was never specifically intended to only recognize veterans, the Vandergrift Fire Department No. 1 told the news outlet.
The fire department established the program in the fall of 2016, after obtaining permission from the council to hang banners from local utility poles, Hometown Hero founder and firefighter Ashleigh Hannigan said.
“I’m still in shock,” said Hannigan, who put up the money to have the banner created. “This whole thing has gotten so twisted, and it breaks my heart.”
The banner was installed on a pole outside the police department to recognize the service of 21-year Vandergrift Police Officer Robert Kirkland, who passed away in June due to complications from sepsis.
Officer Kirkland, 44, left behind his wife, Vicki, and their sons, 13-year-old Connor and 10-year-old Cooper.
“They’ve always been so proud of him for being a police officer,” the grieving widow told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “That’s what they have left — they have a picture of their dad in a police uniform hanging at the police station.”
When she learned that city leaders had voted to remove the memorial banner, it only contributed to the sense of loss her family was already enduring, she said.
“There’s a grieving family behind that [banner]…It represents somebody,” Vicki explained. “It hasn’t even been three months [since his death]. We’re still grieving…Why in the world do I have to fight over a banner?”
Officer Kirkland’s friends and coworkers described him as a devoted family man, who was known to go the extra mile to help those in need in his community.
When a fellow officer’s infant daughter needed surgery in 2008, Officer Kirkland spearheaded a fundraiser to help with their expenses, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.
“He was always truthful and you could always count on him,” Mayor Barbara Turiak said.
But despite having served the community for over two decades, the borough council disagreed with honoring Officer Kirkland as a Hometown Hero.
Council President Kathy Chvala argued that it “would have been nice” if the department had asked the council prior to putting the banner up in the first place, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.
The council also claimed that the local VFW and American Legion posts had approached them to express their disagreement with a non-veteran being honored with a banner.
But representatives of both posts expressed very different views when approached by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“I don’t have a problem with it at all,” American Legion Post 114 Commander Gilbert Hanan said, according to the news outlet. “The logo is Hometown Hero — who said they have to be military?”
VFW Post 566 Commander Carl Trusiak seemed to agree.
“Our official stance is we are not running the project and nobody has asked us for input into the project,” Trusiak said. “Therefore, it is solely up to the people running the project what they wish to do with it.”
Because the Hometown Hero project is not the borough’s undertaking, the municipality isn’t the one responsible for removing the banner, Chvala said.
Hannigan said she hopes an agreement can be reached to leave Officer Kirkland’s banner in place.
“I’m not taking it down until I’m reached out to and told, and then we’ll go from there,” she said. “I’m really hoping I don’t have to.”