Those who have visited the Free Library of Northampton Township in recent days likely noticed a fresh, but familiar, addition to the space.
Sitting proudly inside 25 Upper Holland Road, Richboro is a large flag display that honors the 92 residents who honorably fought for their country in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of combat during the Global War on Terror, from 2003 to 2021.
Previously housed at the township administration building, 55 Township Road, in the board of supervisors’ meeting room, the display has been revamped and moved to its brand new home at the library.
On Veterans Day, a dedication ceremony took place. Present to unveil the new display were loved ones of Army PFC Robert Dembowski Jr. and Army Master Sgt. Kenneth Elwell, the two Northampton patriots who were killed in action.
Supervisors chairman Adam Selisker explained the reasoning behind the move: “You may be surprised, but our library has over 150,000 visitors per year. The prominence of this tribute to our veterans cannot be missed. You can even see it from the outside.”
Selisker hopes its presence at the library will spark conversations and educational moments, and remind visitors that each flag represents a brave individual and their loved ones.
On hand at the ceremony was former supervisors chairman Pete Palestina, who helped launch the township’s Patriots Flag Program nearly two decades ago. It was in early 2003, not long after the invasion of Iraq, when many American troops were being deployed. Palestina was asked by a friend, Bernadette Heenan, to meet with a group of wives and mothers of local military members.
“Their desire was to honor and support the troops from Northampton in any way possible,” he reflected. “We kicked around many scenarios and there was one that stood out.”
April 23 of that year saw the community gather at Robert H. Dembowski Jr. Veterans Memorial Park (then known as Northampton Commons) to witness the very beginning of the Patriots Flag Program. At the time, 24 residents were serving. Therefore, 24 11×15-inch military flags, each affixed with a soldier’s name, were placed in the ground by each family, who were escorted by one of the five supervisors: Palestina, Art Friedman and the late Jim Kinney, John Long and George Komelasky.
Eventually, when it became clear that the war wasn’t going to end anytime soon, the flags were brought inside to escape the harsh winter weather. This was when a display was built to house the flags behind the dais in the supervisors’ meeting room. Rather than place the flag in the ground, family members were escorted to the display to place it when their loved one deployed.
This was also when a heartwarming element was added to the program — when the soldier returned home, they received their military flag and an American flag was added to the display in its place.
Over the years, there have been many emotional moments in the meeting room as parents and siblings tearfully watched the “welcome home” flag exchange, a symbol that their loved one made it back safe and sound. Upon their return, each soldier was also granted local and state citations from Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, Rep. Wendi Thomas and others.
Several times, the display had to be expanded to hold the ever-growing number of flags. Prior to its move to the library, the most recent display had the capacity to hold 132 flags, though the program concluded before that maximum could be reached.
“Although I was sorry to see the old display and program removed from the township building, I was very pleased with what we will shortly see of the new display and its new home,” said Palestina. “It will be preserved in this building and honor all 92 patriots, some of whom are here today.”
Viewers of the display will notice that the front two flags have black streamers affixed to them instead of yellow. These flags honor the memory of Dembowski, who was killed in action on May 24, 2007, just a day after his Army flag was placed in the display by his parents, and Elwell, who was killed in action in Afghanistan on July 17, 2011.
“Returning those Army flags to the Dembowski and Elwell families was one of the toughest and most emotional things I ever had to do and I prayed that I would never have to do it again,” said Palestina.
A number of local officials were present at the library, including Fitzpatrick, who expressed his gratitude to all members of the military.
“It’s because of them that we’ve survived 246 years and still going strong, longer than any other nation on the planet in terms of democracy,” he said. “And it’s important we remember.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org