Lined up at the edge of the Reflecting Pool at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on Thursday, 40 “Tribute Towers” gave visitors to the nation's capital a chance to connect with about 5,000 of the U.S. servicemembers who have died since 9/11 in the war on terrorism.
It was the national unveiling of “Remembering Our Fallen,” a photo exhibit that will cross the country in the next three months. The double-sided, weather-resistant banners, 10 feet high and five feet wide, feature military and civilian photos of each of the fallen heroes, with information about who they are and when they died.
It all began in 2010, when Nebraska residents Bill and Evonne Williams read a story about Gold Star father Lonnie Ford, whose son, Joshua, was killed in Iraq in 2006. Lonnie Ford felt that his son had already been forgotten, and the Williamses set out to do something about that.
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“We hope you are pleased with what you see in front of you, and that we have honored your loved ones.” Evonna Williams told dozens of Gold Star family members Thursday morning. “Part of what we want this memorial to do is to teach Americans to speak the names of your loved ones and others who have died, no matter what the cause may have been. It's so important that we remember them, especially if they have young ones — nieces, nephews, children — who don't know who they were.”
The families were, indeed, pleased.
“We're just so appreciative that this is being done today,” said Shirley White, of West Virginia, who lost two sons — one in battle and one to overprescription of the controversial sleep drug Seroquel after his return from the Iraq. “Because we can say our children's names out loud, and that really helps.”
Her husband, Stan, seconded that, and talked about their sons.
Robert, an Army Ranger with the 82nd Airborne, “was in Afghanistan for the elections, trying to protect the elections” in 2005. The staff sergeant was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his Humvee.
“My youngest son, Andrew, U.S. Marine corporal, was in Iraq at the same time (as Robert). He had been home five days when we got word that his brother was killed. Two and a half years later, he died a noncombat death. His mother found him in bed, dead from being overmedicated by the VA doctors. He was taking 1600 milligrams of Seraquil, 800 is the max. He went to sleep and didn't wake up.”
White's mission is now to honor both of his sons, “and spread the word about medications that are doing more harm than they are good.”
Lt. Col. R. Tyler Willbanks, deputy commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (Old Guard), also noted that there have been many deaths in the war on terrorism that were caused by more than bullets and bombs.
“I personally now have lost more soldiers to suicide than at the hands of the Mosul sniper,” he said. “There is no reckoning for that.”
Also on hand was Janice Chance of Maryland, whose son, Marine Capt. Jesse Melton III — who “wanted to go change the world” — was killed in Afghanistan in 2008.
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“Oh, my goodness,” she said. “Seeing this display, it's hard to capture with words. But I'm thankful that we have a visual reminder to people. It's something seeing names on a wall, but seeing pictures has more of an impact. Seeing the dates, where they were, what happened. That will be forever etched in someone's mind, because the mind is a computer. They will remember the faces of these fallen.
“These are the heroes, the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. So it makes me happy and glad and joyful that not only is it shown here, but it's going to be mobile, moving to different locations so that more people can see them. I pray that they will (later) take the time, go on the internet and look someone up, read about them, then go out and volunteer, make a difference.”
In his opening remarks, Bill Williams told the story of the memorial's growth from the local to the national level.
“Proud to say that our first exhibit, the Nebraska exhibit, has been booked every week — not a week off — since January 2nd of 2011, all over the state, seen by thousands. We went on and created 19 total state exhibits, thanks to Bellevue University in Omaha, and two years ago we unveiled the California exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.” — the destination of the current national tour.
Williams said California has lost the most native sons and daughters in the war on terrorism, over 700 of them. “To put that in perspective,” he said, “our Nebraska exhibit, Kansas, South Carolina, a couple of others are 40 feet long; California's is 240 feet long.”
The banners were to remain on display at the Lincoln Memorial until 6 p.m. on Friday. The next stop is in Hampton, Va., on Sept. 23, followed by New York City in early November. Then it's on to California, with a stop along the way in Cheyenne, Wyo. Williams said anyone interested in hosting a stop should contact his Patriotic Productions office. More information can also be found at www.rememberingourfallen.org.
Janice Chance had a final word for the public: “Never, ever forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice for you. Honor them and their families. There's a family attached to each and every one of these fallen heroes.”
©2017 the Stars and Stripes. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.