Noala Fritz has lived through the agony of the folded flag, the pain of the Gold Star.
In 2006, her son, 1st Lt. Jacob Fritz, left the family’s farm near Falls City, Nebraska, on the 14th birthday of his younger brother, Ethan, to deploy to Iraq. Three months later, he and three of his men were abducted by insurgents disguised as U.S. soldiers, driven to a remote area and shot while hooded and blindfolded.
Her voice broke a little as she recounted the tale she can never forget.
“It has not always been easy. But here I am, sharing Jacob’s story,” Fritz said.
On Wednesday, her audience of about 100 people in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Lincoln was made up mostly of Nebraska state senators and their aides and also included Gov. Pete Ricketts. Also in the audience was 2nd Lt. Ethan Fritz, who will leave in a few weeks for his first duty post at Fort Sill, Oklahoma — he is the third Fritz son to serve in the military.
They were there for the exhibition of the Nebraska “Remembering Our Fallen” wall, a mobile display featuring photos — both military portraits and informal snapshots — of 87 service members from the state killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bill and Evonne Williams, an Omaha couple with four sons who have served, have completed similar walls for 18 states.
“It’s the opening of the (legislative) session. We thought it would be great to have this for those senators who haven’t seen it,” Bill Williams said.
Several members of Gold Star families joined the event. Julia and Eva Yllescas, ages 14 and 7, together sang “This is Still the Land of the Free” in a touching tribute to their father, Capt. Robert Yllescas, of Osceola, Nebraska, who died in Afghanistan on Dec. 1, 2008.
Their mother, Dena Yllescas-Johnston, said Eva was not yet a year old when her father was killed and doesn’t remember him. But Julia, who was 7, was very close to her dad.
“The girls like to sing,” Yllescas-Johnston said. “It’s an amazing opportunity for them.”
The Williamses started the “Remembering Our Fallen” project after reading a World-Herald article in which a Gold Star father worried that his son’s sacrifice in Iraq would be forgotten. That’s a deep concern for many families.
The Nebraska wall, the first one, was unveiled in late 2010.
When the Williamses first contacted her, Noala Fritz was reminded of a cousin who was killed in the Vietnam War and whose name is etched on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I was shocked — not a bad shock,” she said. “I was like, ‘Really? Someone’s going to do something for my child?’ ”
Fritz said she loves seeing her son’s picture and especially seeing him smile. That’s the Jacob Fritz she wants to make sure isn’t forgotten.
“My son died at 25, but he died doing something that was not selfish, that was not foolish, something that was for the good of all of us here today,” Noala Fritz said. “The best way to honor Jacob is to share his life. And if I want people to remember Jacob, I’ve got to tell his story.”
The Williamses want to memorialize all of the men and women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year, they unveiled walls for five more states, and they are currently working on memorials for Virginia, North Carolina and New York. But their goal of completing every state and conducting a national tour with all 50 walls is threatened because of a lack of sponsors.
“We need funding to keep going,” Evonne Williams said.
The casualties continue to mount in the conflicts they seek to commemorate. Just this week, the Defense Department announced the death of a U.S. service member in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, and last month six U.S. airmen — including Tech. Sgt. Joseph Lemm, a Nebraska native — were killed in a suicide bombing near Bagram Air Field.
“We live in a dangerous world. There’s a continuing need for men and women to put on the uniform and defend our freedom,” Ricketts said, addressing the Gold Star families. “We want to express our deepest condolences for the loss of your loved ones. We honor their service.”
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