Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

'Remembering Our Fallen' Makes Spring Game Stop

By Brian Rosenthal

From tiny Verdon, Nebraska, Jacob Fritz grew up the quintessential All-American boy. He loved to read. He loved history. He loved sports. An offensive lineman in football, a center in basketball. No matter the leadership role needed, whether at church or school, Jacob volunteered.

The barrel-chested, lovable farm boy, known for his big smiles and giant bear hugs, knew in the fifth grade he wanted to attend a military academy. He was among 11 graduates in his class at Dawson-Verdon High School. At age 23, Jacob graduated from West Point, and he became Army 1st Lt. Jacob Fritz.

“You don’t know how awesome it is to have a mother have her son walk across and then they say, ‘Jacob Noal Fritz, Verdon, Nebraska,’ Noala Fritz said. “That was one of the most awesome days.”

Jacob, older brother to Dan and Ethan, was gregarious and carefree. He could come home from break, head to a bar in Falls City by himself, and just sit, but end up drawing a crowd, usually farmers and ranchers. He could befriend about anybody, sometimes through his care, other times through his wit and humor.

When the phone rang on the Fritz family farm at 3 a.m. one morning, the voice on the other end said he was from the Richardson County Sheriff’s Department.

“Your cattle are out,” the man said.

The next thing Noala heard was a big belly laugh.

“It’s me!” Jacob said. “How do I know if you have cows out? I’m clear over here in Iraq!”

He pulled the prank from the across the world, there serving his country and fighting in the global war on terror. Jacob loved and cared for his soldiers. He knew what his job was, what his role was, and how he could get others to be successful.

Jacob had his fun there, too, one time blaring music by Eminem for all of the convoy to hear while he served night patrol.

The stories are countless. In fact, Noala was sharing some with friends who were asking about Jacob during a reception for a new library in Falls City. Noala and her husband, Lyle, attended.

When they returned to their car following the reception, Noala picked up her cell phone and saw that Ethan, then 14, had called three times. He left a short voicemail.

“Mom, come home.”

On the 10-mile drive home, Noala called Ethan, wondering what was wrong, figuring cattle were out or some similar farm issue.

“All he would say was, ‘Mom, just come home. Just come home.’ ”

When Lyle and Noala pulled into their driveway, they saw two cars parked where normal visitors to the Fritz farm wouldn’t be. As Noala got out of her car and walked toward the house, she peered through a window and saw two men in uniform stand up.

Ethan stood in between the men.

“I dropped to my knees,” Noala said.

Lyle and Noala had lost a son.

Dan had lost his best friend.

Ethan, who had spent 90 minutes with the soldier and chaplain, knowing Jacob’s fate long before his parents, had lost his hero.

**************

On Saturday, either before or after the Nebraska Spring Game, look for Jacob’s name on The Remembering Our Fallen Memorial, an all-encompassing national memorial that includes our country's military who have died while deployed in The War on Terror since September 11, 2001.

The one-of-a-kind display, a traveling memorial, will be set up on the east end of the Husker Nation Pavilion outside Memorial Stadium and will be viewable when the Pavilion opens at 10 a.m. and remain open until 90 minutes after the game.

You can the find the names of more than 5,000 veterans – the oldest 67, the youngest 18 – on any of the 32 tribute towers, each 10 feet high and 5 feet wide. They include military and personal photos. Separate towers honor those who died in training missions and those who suffered emotional wounds and took their own lives.

Thank Bill and Evonne Williams for creating the display, with financial support of several sponsors, including Bellevue University, and Noala for being its traveling spokesperson.

“The sacrifice that these soldiers, both men and women, young and old, what they gave for our country, I don’t want that to be forgotten,” Noala said, “and I don’t want them to be forgotten.”

Bill and Evonne Williams had the same thought after reading a story in the Omaha World-Herald, in 2010, about Lonnie Ford, who lost his son, Joshua, also in Iraq. The story told of Ford’s concern that his son would be forgotten.

That struck the Williams family, who had already founded Patriotic Productions, a non-profit organization that organized and raised funds to take more than 3,500 World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans on honor flights to see their memorials, beginning in 2008. Bill and Evonne weren’t involved in the military themselves but have four sons who have been – two in the Army, two in the Marines.

They turned their attention to creating an exhibit that could travel across the state and display the names and pictures of those Nebraskans who sacrificed their lives during the War on Terror – so they would not be forgotten.

Over the next few years, they decided to create memorials for other states as well. After completing 19 state memorials, the focus shifted to one national memorial that encompasses the fallen from across the country.

The national display debuted locally in July of 2017 in front of Pinnacle Bank Arena. Its national unveiling was at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s also traveled to New York City for Veteran’s Day, the Reagan Library in California, to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl parade, outside football stadiums at Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and to Philadelphia for the Army-Navy football game

“We’re very pleased it’s going to set up for the Spring Game,” Bill Williams said. “It will give people an opportunity to see the national memorial. There’s no other memorial like it in the country.”

After Saturday, the memorial heads to Wrigley Field in Chicago. It will return to Omaha in June for the College World Series.

“Nobody has been disappointed once they see it,” Noala said. “People come in and thinking they’re going to spend just a few minutes, and an hour later they’re still there. We have people that don’t know any soldiers, and they’ll say, ‘But I can’t leave until I see all of them.’ It’s just a wonderful memorial. It really, truly is.”

**************

On January 20, 2007, Jacob Fritz and four other soldiers lost their lives during a bold, sophisticated attack on an Iraqi security facility in Karbala. They had been abducted by Shiite militia who spoke English, wore U.S. uniforms and carried American weapons. They were tortured, handcuffed, hooded and executed as U.S troops closed in.

“How did this happen?” Noala said. “Verdon, Nebraska. We have less than 200 people in our town. How could this be? My son. Why?”

Bill and Evonne attended Jacob’s funeral, unbeknownst to Noala at the time. In the spring of 2010, they contacted the Gold Star families throughout Nebraska, including Noala and Lyle, and explained their idea for a pictorial memorial.

That fall, Noala and Lyle attended the debut of the Nebraska memorial at the SAC Air Force Base. Eight months later, Lyle died of a failed lung transplant, and Noala was pleased to see Bill and Evonne attend Lyle’s funeral, too. She said then she would be happy to volunteer her help for the memorial if needed.

In the spring of 2012, Bill asked Noala if she would speak to a class at Benson High School about Jacob.

“I said I’d love to.”

That began a string of speaking engagements for Noala, who learned to fight through the tears as she delivered her message.

Preparing to retire after 38 years as a teacher at Falls City High School, Noala expanded her involvement when Bill and Evonne asked if she would be the traveling spokesperson for the national memorial, which hadn’t yet been completed. She said yes, thinking it would never come to fruition.

“Doggone it if those people didn’t get it done,” Noala said. “They are such believers and achievers and doers.”

Today, Noala and her fiancé, Rick Ward, travel with the display around the nation.

“It’s wonderful. It’s so hard to put into words. It’s definitely become a passion of mine,” Noala said. “People ask me how long I plan on doing this, and I say I don’t want my part to end until all of those we’ve lost since the global war on terror has been declared, that we have all of them on the towers.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

MORE NEWS

More News Sponsor - First National Bank

TICKETS

Tickets Sponsor - StubHub