The couple who took more than 3,300 Nebraska veterans to Washington are hitting the road again this summer, and this time they’ll travel with the memories of more than 4,000 U.S. servicemen and women killed after Sept. 11, 2001.
“That’s our mission now,” Bill Williams said. “It’s the only memorial like it in the country, honoring the fallen from the war on terror.”
For the past decade, Bill and Evonne Williams of Omaha have been known for their free honor flights, which carried veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam on daylong trips to the nation's war memorials in Washington.
But for much of that time, they’ve also been working on another project. And they'll unveil their $200,000 Remembering Our Fallen National Memorial in Lincoln on July 21, before taking it on a tour around the country, including stops in Washington and New York.
The display will show the faces and share the stories of the servicemen and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan and related missions. And it will be big enough to fill a basketball court.
They're starting with 25 Tribute Towers — each one 10 feet tall and bearing three canvas panels with photos of each service member. Eventually, they hope to expand it to 40 towers, to represent 7,000 lost in the war on terror.
“Our thought was, 'Let’s create what we have, which is a lot, and start touring it nationally. And people will say, 'Gosh, my son needs to be on here,' or, 'My daughter needs to be.'”
They patterned the memorial after the state-specific Remembering Our Fallen displays they've produced.
But those are indoor exhibits. Because of the size of the national exhibit, they wanted something that would withstand the elements when displayed outside.
They found Renze Display in Omaha, which engineered and is building the towers. They'll have solar-powered lights, so they can be displayed at night. They'll have wireless speakers, to play music and recorded messages from Gold Star children.
Like driveway basketball hoops, they can be filled with water when on display — so they'll weigh 300 pounds and not topple in the wind.
They're almost done. Evonne Williams has been monitoring the panel printing, guarding against mistakes.
“They’re being worked on feverishly. And she sits there for hours making sure the names are on the right person,” Bill Williams said.
She's spent the past seven years gathering the names, stories and photos — one in uniform, one personal — of soldiers and sailors killed fighting terrorism. Some families are happy to share; some unwilling.
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She scours the internet, checks obituaries, tracks down the families. “People think you go to the government to get a list, but there's no list,” Bill Williams said.
And even when she finds a name, it's not always easy. Maybe a war widow has remarried, changed her name and moved across the country.
“It’s 'Colombo' work to find her and ask her for the pictures, military and personal. When Evonne gets done, she’ll have the most accurate database in the country.”
But they're not waiting until it gets done. After the July 22 unveiling inside the Pinnacle Bank Arena, they'll hit the road with the names and faces they have.
They'll show it in Minnesota and then West Point, Nebraska, and at the State Fair in Grand Island. They're calling this a gift to the nation from Nebraska, and they'll present it Sept. 7 at the Lincoln Memorial. They'll show it at the Pentagon the week of Sept. 11, and in New York on Veterans Day, and then at the Reagan Library in California.
It will stay in California for the first part of next year and then return to the Midwest.
They're hoping to pick up sponsors along the way, because they haven't figured out how to pay for it all yet. “We’re kind of doing this on a wing and prayer,” Bill Williams said.
But they've already found a volunteer to help take it across the country.
Noala Fritz of Verdon lost her 25-year-old son, 1st Lt. Jacob Fritz, during an ambush in Iraq more than 10 years ago. She’s spoken several times during presentations of Nebraska’s Remembering Our Fallen display.
Her audiences have been eager to hear about her son, and his sacrifice.
“When they show up, they want to honor these soldiers, and this is their way to honor and remember those young men and women.”
Traveling the country with the national display will give her a chance to tell even more people about her son. And it will be her way of repaying Bill and Evonne Williams for what they’ve done for those who made it home from war, and for those who didn’t.
“They’ve given so much to the soldiers. It’s a way to thank them for what they’ve done and to share my son’s story, along with other soldiers whose names are now memorialized.”