The City of Lawrence recently added two more Blue Star Banners to light poles lining 56th Street, honoring residents with active-duty, deployed family members.
During a ceremony June 29, Mayor Steve Collier presented Blue Star packets to the families of U.S. Army Specialis Jalen Lloyd, and U.S. Marine Corps Pvt. Billy Wilkinson. The packets include a photo of the service member’s banner, Blue Star pins and decals, and a one-star garden flag for the families to display at home.
Mary Jo Rothenbush coordinates the Blue Star Banner program for the City of Lawrence, which she said was developed in 2009 by Candy Davis, who ran the program until she retired in 2016. Rothenbush said the program is funded through community donations, and there’s never been a shortage of support.
She said the families are grateful for that public recognition of their military member’s service to the country.
“I’ve just found that the families just absolutely love this program,” Rothenbush said. “They embrace it. It’s just so important for them to drive through the city and see their son or daughter’s banner up there. It means a lot.”
Lawrence has 28 banners on display along 56th Street. They’re up from April through November. As military members leave the U.S. Armed Forces, the banners are given to the family to keep.
Rothenbush said there is specific criteria to qualify for the program. The military member must be active duty and deployed outside of Indiana, and a family member must live in the City of Lawrence — not just the township.
Although they are the most visible part of the program, Rothenbush said the city offers more than just banners. Blue Star families are invited to be in the annual Fourth of July parade, for example, and they participate in ceremonies that recognize military anniversaries. Rothenbush said the mayor likes to host an appreciation dinner for the families in the fall, and she decorates a Christmas tree in the government building with photos of deployed military members.
Lawrence resident Barcia Alejos is the mother of two active-duty military members, and her sons’ banners hang side-by-side from the same light pole on 56th Street between Fortune School and La Hacienda Restaurant.
“We are a double Blue Star family,” she said. “We raised all three of our children with values of God, family and country. Two of our sons went directly out of high school to serve their country when they were accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point, respectively. When so few acknowledge what it means to serve our country, I am very proud to be from Lawrence, where it is lifted up.”
Her active-duty sons are U.S. Navy Lt. Marco Alejos, a 2016 U.S. Naval Academy graduate who is now leading midshipmen and teaching at the Naval Academy after four years of flying Sierra helicopters in San Diego; and U.S. Army Lt. Andrés Alejos, a 2018 West Point graduate, who is an officer in the Cyber Security Branch at the Army Cyber Institute at Ft. Gordon in Augusta, Georgia.
Jerrod Klein has one son serving, but the family had three banners up until this year. Their youngest, Carson Klein, is a sergeant in the U.S. Army and works in cyber security for the National Security Agency. Carson Klein’s banner is west of 56th Street from Pendleton Pike, just before the bridge.
Jerrod Klein also served in the Army, where he met his wife, Col. Krista Klein. Their oldest son, Justin, served 10 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and recently decided to become a civilian.
Jerrod Klein said Lawrence has done an exceptional job connecting the community’s military history to the present.
“The Blue Star Banner Program has been a significant factor in recognizing those who are currently serving,” he said, “As I drive through the Fort Harrison corridor and see the names of those serving, I feel a special level of pride and appreciation for those service members and their families. You won’t get financially rich by choosing a military life, yet you do become emotionally rich in appreciation of the sacrifices it takes to protect our freedoms.”
Klein said he’d like people to understand the level of commitment members of the armed services give, and the benefits service members receive in return.
“The important life lessons and disciplines obtained through military service are with you forever,” he said. “Veterans, regardless of the branch served in, have a very special connection. You share many similar, and many very different experiences that you are able to share and connect with. It’s a very special sort of club.”
For up-to-date information about Lawrence’s Blue Star Banner program, visit its Facebook page, facebook.com/LawrenceIndianaBlueStarBanner.
How did the Blue Star tradition begin?
In 1917, during World War I, the first Blue Star Service Banner was designed by U.S. Army Capt. Robert Queisser of the 5th Ohio Infantry, according to the national American Legion website. He had two sons serving on the front line, and he wanted a banner to recognize their service.
The banner design quickly became popular among families with a child in active military service, but it wasn’t until World War II that the banners became official, with U. S. Department of War specifications and guidelines.
“Today, families display these banners when they have a loved one serving in the U.S. Armed Forces,” the website states. “The blue star represents one family member serving, and a banner can have up to five stars. If the individual is killed or dies, a smaller golden star is placed over it.”
The banners were displayed less often during the Korean and Vietnam wars, the website states, but interest rekindled following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
For more, visit legion.org/troops/bluestar.