"Remembering Our Fallen" Honor Flight

Before nearly 70 Gold Star families attend the Nov. 7 Husker game against Michigan State, they'll be able to visit the Remembering Our Fallen memorial to see photos of their loved ones who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ERIC GREGORY/Lincoln Journal Star file photo

She is the charter member of a club she wanted nothing to do with, until now.

Deon Ford lost her husband in April 2003, when Marine Capt. Travis Ford’s helicopter crashed after hitting an unmarked radio tower near Baghdad. He became the first Nebraskan to die in combat in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And she became Nebraska's first recent wartime widow.

Dozens more would join her, women with whom she shared a hard truth but little desire to meet.

“I think I really distanced myself from that for a really long time, for whatever reason,” she said from her home in San Clemente, California.

But when Bill Williams contacted her, and invited her and her daughter back to Nebraska for next month's Gold Star Kids Honor Flight, she accepted. Not so much for herself, but for 14-year-old Ashley.

The girl hadn't yet turned 2 when her father died.

“She's at that age where she needs to realize there are other teens out there who maybe have had the same situation,” she said.

There are, and she'll meet them in Nebraska, where Williams and his wife, Evonne, are planning an over-the-top weekend for nearly 70 war widows, and children ranging in age from 6 to 17, who lost their fathers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We think it's the neatest thing we've ever been involved with,” Williams said, “because people don't think about these children.”

The couple's nonprofit, Patriotic Productions, has carried thousands of World War II and Korean vets to Washington, D.C., on all-expenses-paid honor flights over the past decade. And their Remembering Our Fallen memorial travels the state, commemorating the 88 servicemen and women with ties to Nebraska who have died since 2001.

The idea got started earlier this year, when the University of Nebraska-Lincoln contacted Williams, looking for veterans to honor during the Nov. 7 football game against Michigan State.

It's an annual request, he said: “The football office has called the last few years (and asked) 'Can you recommend a World War II guy or an honor flight Korean guy?'”

But for this year’s Military Appreciation Day, he suggested the university honor the widows and young children of the fallen, he said.

The college bit.

“It seems like a wonderful, amazing thing they're putting together for these kids,” said Chris Anderson, associate athletic director. “And we wanted to be a part of it.”

The couple started getting to work, and thinking big, and this is what they came up with:

The women and children will gather at the Nebraska National Guard's Camp Ashland on Friday, the day before the game. The kids get a boot-camp experience, but the mothers get a spa -- terry cloth robes, manicures and massages, a wine and dessert bar. Each child will get a handmade quilt from the Lincoln Quilters Guild.

Parker's Smokehouse will cater a white-tablecloth dinner; Burger King will drive breakfast in from Lincoln on Game Day morning.

Then the group will take a bus to Omaha and board a plane bound for Lincoln.

Williams got lucky. Delta Airlines, which had flown some of the Washington-bound honor flights, wanted $33,000, he said. Too much. So he called Sun Country, which just happened to be flying charter for Michigan State's football team, and would have an empty plane in Nebraska that day. His for $15,000.

“That's divine intervention,” he said.

Volunteers are organizing a pair of pep rallies, for the send-off at the Omaha airport and the group's arrival in Lincoln. The Lincoln Airport is planning a water cannon salute to greet the mothers and children as their jet taxis to the gate.

They'll stop first at the ROTC building east of Memorial Stadium, where the Remembering Our Fallen exhibit will be on display. The children will be given red roses to place by photos of their fathers.

The university donated 70 seats for the game, in the handicapped section near the club seating level.

“They understand the (enormousness) of how neat this is,” Williams said. “They came through big.”

Organizers will give each mother and child gold helium-filled balloons with little LED lights. The kids will write letters to their fathers and attach them to the balloons.

So far, 65 women and children have accepted their invitations. Most still live in Nebraska, but Bill and Evonne Williams will fly several families in from other states.

Like Deon and Ashley Ford. They were living in California because Travis Ford's unit was based at Camp Pendleton. They stayed after he was killed in Iraq.

Deon, a Superior native, hasn't been to a Nebraska game since she graduated from the university in 1996. She's looking forward to it, she said, and to meeting the other families.

But she's also looking forward to her daughter learning what her father still means to Nebraska.

“It's good for her to recognize the sacrifices her father made,” she said. “And it's good for her to see that others recognize it, too.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.


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