ASHLAND -- Norma Jean Nisely knew what to expect when she first saw an exhibit honoring Nebraskans who have died serving in the war on terrorism.
There was a photo of her son, Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Scott Nisely, on a display panel in the softly lit room at the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Ashland. He died Sept. 30, 2006, in a firefight in Iraq.
She knew he'd be there.
But that couldn't hold back a mother's tears when she saw his face.
"It's hard," Nisely said recently, recalling the day last month when she and her husband, J.C. Nisely, drove from their home in Syracuse to visit the museum. "It's always hard."
Sgt. Nisely, 48, a husband and father of two, served with the Iowa Army National Guard. But the veteran of Operation Desert Storm grew up in Syracuse and graduated from Doane College in Crete.
What his mother didn't expect was the mixture of pride and sadness she felt when she saw her son's photo alongside those of 98 other soldiers from Nebraska and western Iowa who've died fighting in or training for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A total of 5,838 American service personnel have been killed in the two countries.
"When you see them altogether like that, you realize what a cost it is."
The exhibit, called "Remembering Our Fallen," will appear at the museum through Dec. 31 before it travels across the state.
It was assembled by Bill and Evonne Williams, the Omaha couple who led the Heartland Honor Flights in 2008 and 2009. Partnering with the Nebraska VFW, they provided free airfare for 1,500 World War II veterans from Nebraska and western Iowa to see their memorial in Washington, D.C.
Evonne Williams, interim director of the museum, said the idea for the exhibit was inspired by a newspaper story about Lonnie Ford, the father of Army National Guard Sgt. Joshua Ford. The Pender man said in the months following his son's 2006 death from a roadside bomb in Iraq, friends and family withdrew.
"He said, ‘It's like he's been forgotten,'" Williams said. "What we hope it will do is keep their memories alive."
So the graphic arts panels show their portraits, mostly in uniform, with their names underneath. They are listed from the first killed in action until the most recent.
Marine Cpl. Matthew Henderson, 25, of Lincoln ... Sgt. Nicholas Nolte, 25, of Falls City ... Army Sgt. Michael Scusa, 22, of Crete ... Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Scholl, 21, of Lincoln ...
The Williamses worked with the Omaha World-Herald to gather names and photos. They included those who died in noncombat situations because they were either in harm's way or training to serve in combat zones.
And they tried to contact the parents or spouses of every service member on the list, requesting an additional photo of their loved one to include in the display.
They reached nearly all of them. And since the exhibit opened on Nov. 14, the families of about 70 of the service members have seen it, Williams said.
"It's been very well received," Williams said. "They have been so appreciative."
On Monday, a relatively quiet day at the museum, Sarah O'Brien and her husband, Kelley, of Glenrock, Wyo., spent about 10 minutes going through the exhibit. Sarah O'Brien said she liked the personal photos that accompanied the uniformed portraits, such as the one that showed a young man cheering on the Huskers at Memorial Stadium or a father with his three young children on his lap.
"It helps us to remember there was a life before," she said.
Included in the display are photos of Army Sgt. Cory Mracek, 26, of Hay Springs, who was killed in 2004 by a roadside bomb in Iraq. His mother, Pat Mracek, is president of the Nebraska Gold Star Mothers.
It's a beautiful honor, she said.
And it achieves its goal.
"Our biggest fear is people are going to forget," she said. "It's really nice when they have a picture with an exhibit because we don't want their faces forgotten."