Banner project adds 20 Brave servicemen and women

Congressman Jim Costa thanks Dustin Cole, head of The Brave Project, for his dedication to recognizing military men and women with banners across the city of Visalia during a May 18 ceremony.(Reggie Ellis)

The Brave Project expands list of active military, veterans and fallen soldiers to more than 500 banners overlooking major roads in Visalia

VISALIA – The city marched toward its distinction in America as a home of the brave with a ceremony adding the names of 20 military men and women to its growing list of banners.

About 300 community members gathered at Bello Vita on the morning of May 18 to unveil the new banners to family members and friends which will hang on light pols throughout the city. The banners are part of The Brave Project, a nonprofit dedicated to recognizing active servicemembers, veterans and those who died in service of their country with banners hanging along major roads throughout Visalia.

Active military banners include: Jesus Roa, Navy; Isaiah Gutierrez-Mendoza, Army, Samantha Garcia, Navy; Brandon Allen, Marines; Nathaniel Fonseca, Navy: Ryan King, Navy; Steven Montland, Air Force; Frank Renteria, Army; Matthew Clawy, Air Force; Collin Smith, Air Force; Gabriel Gonzalez, Air Force; Michele Figueroa, Marines; Ruby Rideot, Army; David Rizo, Sr.

Veteran banners include: Joshua Thursdorr, Air Force; Donietz Lopez, Army; Julid Luna, Navy; Richard Guerrero, Army; Esequiel Perez, Air Force; Roxanne Penoz, Air force; Gus Nevarez, Navy; Rick Hantsell, Army; Jerry Dias, Marines; Bob Buncheiston.

The 20 new banners will be installed in the next two weeks.

Debbie Tuttle drives past Keith Williams’ banner every day as a reminder of the sacrifice her son made with his life and the pride she has for his service despite the whole it left in her own life. Army Pfc. Keith Williams was just 19 years old when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in July 2014. Williams parents both grew up in military families. Tuttle was a military brat in New Zealand where her father served in the Army for 25 years. Despite her family history, Tuttle tried to talk her son out of a combat position. She asked him to be a cook but he insisted he wanted to go where he was needed most, on the front lines of the War on Terror. Despite her fears, she said one of her proudest days was when Keith received his blue cord and marched in a military ceremony recognizing him as a U.S. Army infantryman.

“So, it meant a great deal to me that the Brave Project was there to ensure that my son was recognized and ultimately with a fallen hero star when he made the ultimate sacrifice,” Tuttle said through the tears.

Keith Williams is one of four banners hanging around the city with a Gold Star, representing those who were killed in action. The others are Jared Verbeek, Tyler Vaughan and Joshua Burks. Tuttle said Brave Project founder Gary Cole made a special effort to have her son’s banner moved near El Diamante High School where he graduated in 2013 shortly before joining the military.

“Not all families have the resources to get their banner hung up and I think it’s so important for the family to have that visual reminder of how significant their child’s service is,” Tuttle said before encouraging those in attendance to donate to the Brave Project. “I think [those who serve in the military] are the best of us.”

Aurelia Rocha told the story of her two daughters, Alyssa Vasquez and Jacqueline Rocha, for there more than five years of service in the Navy and Air Force, respectively. She said Alyssa wanted to become a medic but would soon trade her cozy job at a hospital to be a field medic in the Marine Corps in her very own GI Jane journey. Jackie was stationed in the frozen elements of Anchorage, Alaska and dedicated much of her service as a mental health therapist at the VA Hospital there.

“I like to think that I raised superhuman heroes, but it was actually the military that made them who they are,” Rocha said. “Today they are both very brave women who are strong and independent.”

Rocha said she and her husband were extremely proud of their daughters and eventually met Brave Project founder Gary Cole. He guided them through the process of getting banners up for their daughters. She said the banners have allowed her family and community to show support for her daughters.

“Every day, I take my daughters’ younger siblings to school and we pass by these banners and I smile,” Rocha said. “I am so proud to see their names flying high.”

Family Legacy

The Brave Project was founded by the Gary and Jana Cole in 2012 with a banner at the corner of Court Street and Caldwell Avenue. Gary’s son, Dustin Cole, said the idea for the banners came from a trip his father took to his hometown of Glendora, Calif. and was impressed by banners celebrating those who had served in the Armed Forces. He shared his stepmother and father drew up the design of the banners on a piece of paper and went to the city to ask if they could get permission to put them on the light poles around town. The city worker mistakenly thought they wanted to tape copies of the piece of paper as flyers to the city poles and told them graffiti was illegal. The woman quickly changed her mind and swelled with pride at the idea of having banners throughout the city honoring military men and women.

“So, it was a pretty funny story that she told me and I thought I’m definitely going to share that because it just warms my heart to hear, you know, some of the obstacles that everybody had to go through,” Cole said.

Today, more than 500 banners wrap around the city along Akers, Goshen, Riggin Avenue/St. John’s Parkway, Lovers Lane, Caldwell Avenue, Demaree Street and Ben Maddox. When his father became suddenly ill in 2022, Dustin sat with him and told him he wanted to take over the Brave Project and continue to see it grow. In the months before his father’s passing, Dustin would spend hours in his father’s office going over paperwork trying to figure out the process for putting up the banners. The experience helped him to fully understand the obstacles his father had overcome to make the project a reality.

“So, this is my father’s passion. It gave him purpose,” Dustin said. “Anybody who knew my father knew how hard he worked and knew how hard he knew how much you have to put into this.”

Supervisor Amy Shuklian was on the Visalia City Council when it approved the first banners in 2012. She said Visalia has always been supportive of its military families and noted recent efforts in the community to support veterans. The Veterans Administration Clinic opened Friday, May 17 in the former Buckman Mitchell building downtown and the Tulare-Kings Homeless Task Force recently changed its bylaws to ensure veterans have a seat at the table making decisions for a large veteran population who remain unhoused.

“For a community to show the respect and gratitude for those who are serving in the military, I think is the best thing that you can do,” Shuklian said.

Visalia Mayor Brian Poochigian reminded everyone that BRAVE was an acronym for Banners Recognizing & Appreciating Visalia’s Elite. He applauded the organization’s mission of creating a lasting symbol of gratitude for their service and sacrifices.

“It’s not just an acronym. It is a testament to the spirit of Visalia,” Poochigian said. “Through the installation of military banners across our beloved city, we aim to remind everyone of the bravery, dedication and unwavering commitment demonstrated by those who wear the uniform.”

The event had its share of federal representatives as well. Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, who was just on the ballot on May 19 when people went to the polls to fill the seat vacated by Congressman Kevin McCarthy, led the pledge of allegiance to kick off the event. Later on, current Congressman Jim Costa took the podium to talk about the ways in which new legislation is attempting to better serve those serving their country.

“A grateful nation can never ever say thank you enough,” Costa said. “Together, we can honor our heroes and make Visalia proud and supportive community. And Visalia is always a proud and supportive community.”

The event was organized by Leadership Visalia, a nine-month program created by the Visalia Chamber of Commerce to help develop the tools, knowledge, connections and skills to take on local issues. As a former graduate of the program, Dustin said Leadership Visalia prepared him for the work to continue his father’s legacy.

“Leadership and serving the community inspires me to be better, and leadership has always been on my heart,” Dustin said.

Each banner costs $400 for printing, brackets and installation. Banners are typically replaced every three to four years to make room for other names, as there are a limited number of light poles throughout the city. Dustin did say The Brave Project is constantly working with the City of Visalia to make more light poles available for banners. Anyone wanting to support the Brave Project can do so by donating their time or money by going to TheBraveProjectVisalia.org.

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