Story by Robert Pore, The Grand Island Independent; photo Independent/Barrett Stinson, both printed with permission by the Grand Island Independent.
Since the War on Terror began on Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. To remember those who have given their lives in service to their country, a new traveling display, Remembering Our Fallen Tribute Towers Memorial, is located on the Nebraska State Fairgrounds at Fonner Park next to the south entrance of the Heartland Events Center.
The memorial features 30 towers with 4,600 photos of Americans who lost their lives in the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each photo has information about the fallen hero: their age, their hometown, their rank and when, how and where they died. There is also a nonmilitary photo to help personalize the individual as a civilian. At the memorial at the State Fair was Noala Fritz of Verdon, who lost her son, 1st Lt. Jacob Fritz, who was a West Point graduate, on Jan. 20, 2007, in Iraq as a result of a combat wound. Her son’s photo is on display at the memorial.
The project was started by Bill and Evonne Williams of Omaha. Bill Williams has helped organize 11 honor flights for 3,400 veterans from the Omaha area who served their country during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. All of the Williamses’ children have served in the armed forces. Fritz said she first met the Williamses when they unveiled the Nebraska version of “Remembering Our Fallen.” Several years later, Fritz was asked to speak at a program about the Nebraska fallen during the War on Terror, where she shared her son’s story. After the program, Bill Williams asked her if she would speak again at various functions.
She has also helped the Williamses with one of the Korean War veterans honor flights. “I wanted to share my son’s story,” she said. Fritz, a Gold Star parent, also has helped in working with other Gold Star families. Gold Star families are ones who have lost a family member in combat. Bill Williams also persuaded her to work with the new national version of the “Remembering Our Fallen” display.
A retired teacher, Fritz agreed. She said there was overwhelming emotion among many who have witnessed the memorial at the State Fair. “There have been tears; there has been a kind of pride when they find someone they knew on one of the towers; there have been the memories and they will share stories,” Fritz said. “I talked to a mother the other day. Her son was 43 years old with four kids and he was in the Navy and he was always known for ‘easy day.’ When someone asked him how his day was going, he would say, ‘easy day,’ or what is going on, he would say, ‘easy day.’ We talked for quite a while and I took her picture next to her son’s photo. When she left, she looked at me and said, ‘easy day.’” Fritz said it is hard for people to describe the flood of emotions they experience when looking at the memorial. “For a lot of people, even ones who don’t have a loved one here, it brings them to tears,” she said.
Many of the photographs in the memorial are of men not even 20 years of age. One young man, who was 18 years old, died for his country during the War on Terror less than a year after graduating from high school. She said those are the ones that cause people to pause and be taken aback. Fritz also said the duration of the War on Terror, since it first began in 2001, and seeing the dates for those who have lost their lives, also impacts the people viewing the memorial, as the War on Terror is ongoing. One of the things notable about her son Jacob’s photo is his smile. “He loved life and, you know, I need to go out and live my life now for him and share his story and share these kids’ stories and listen to stories,” Fritz said.
The memorial also contains the photos of some of the 157 women who have been killed during combat in the War on Terror. Williams said seven years ago, the Omaha World-Herald published a story about a father who had lost his son in Iraq, and his concern that his son would be forgotten. After reading the story, the Williamses came up with the idea to create the exhibit. “We didn’t want it to sit in a museum,” Bill Williams said. “We wanted it to travel.” While the memorial at the State Fair has photos of the fallen warriors from throughout the nation, the Williamses first created the memorial to honor the fallen from Nebraska.
That project expanded and since then, they have created similar “Remembering Our Fallen” memorials for 19 states. They have been working on the project since January 2011. “My wife has spent hundreds and hundreds of hours researching this because there is no list,” Williams said. “People think you go to the government and get a list, but there isn’t one. She does all the research to contact the families to ask them for the photos that are on the towers. It has been quite an undertaking.”
So far, the Williamses have identified 65 percent of those who have died as a result of the War on Terror since Sept. 11, 2001. Williams estimated that once they complete the task of getting all the name,s they will have about 40 towers and more than 7,000 photos. The national “Remembering Our Fallen” memorial was first unveiled on July 22 at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln.
Before coming to the State Fair, it has been on display at fairs in West Point, NE., and Minnesota. After the State Fair, the memorial traveled to Washington, D.C., for its national unveiling at the Lincoln Memorial on Sept. 8. After the national unveiling, it traveled to New York City, the Reagan Library and the Rose Bowl in California. “We are trying to make this a gift from Nebraska to the nation,” Bill Williams said. “The biggest fear of the Gold Star families is that their loved ones will be forgotten. Our mission is that they will not be.” Those who want to donate to the project can do so at the display at the State Fair or visit their website at www.rememberingourfallen.org.