By BECKY KISER
“The Gold Star families have liked this stop in Plainville the best.”
Nola Fritz, a Gold Star mother from Verdon, Nebraska, heaped praise on the small town and residents of Rooks County following Friday morning’s opening ceremony of “Remembering Our Fallen.”
The national traveling display is in honor and memory of military personnel who died in the line of duty, in training, and as a result of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) since 9/11.
Also participating in the ceremony were Brigadier General David Weishaar, Kansas National Guard, and Col. Thomas O’Connor, Jr., Fort Riley, who dined privately afterwards with the Gold Star families and other dignitaries.
“We must always remember the genesis of freedom that we enjoy today as Americans, is rooted in these heroes and their sacrifice,” said O’Connor, Jr. “It is my commitment that we will honor and remember your loved ones as we are doing here today,” added Weishaar.
Fritz manages and travels with the basketball court-sized pictorial display. Her oldest son, First Lt. Jacob Fritz, 25, and a West Point graduate, was executed while an Iraq POW on Jan. 20, 2007.
What was most appreciated by the Gold Star families, Fritz said, is the pen pal correspondence started between them and students of all ages in Rooks County.
Some of the communication was email and some of it was in a hand-written letter.
“They all got to connect with a class and they had the chance to meet the class today and take a picture with them,” said Sheila Hachmeister, a Plainville Ambassador member who chaired the weekend event.
“We’ve got a lot of people from the eastern part of the state. A couple who now lives in Ohio flew in to meet their class. Another soldier’s family flew in from North Carolina. Although they are Kansas families, we’ve kind of had them from all over.”
The Rooks County students also made red, white and blue fabric wreaths that decorated the main stage for the attending Gold Star families to take home. Another 70 wreaths will go to Kansas families whose sons and daughters are also on the towers.
None of the K-12 students was alive on 9/11.
“They’ve seen some clips on TV,” said Leona Breeden, a social studies teacher at Plainville Grade School. She explains to her 4th, 5th and 6th graders where she was on that fateful day – teaching in Hoxie.
“I talk about it in terms of what we did as a school then,” Breeden said, “and then we talk about the fact that these are real places and real people they hear of on the news that the U.S. is trying to help.”
Breeden’s 6th grade class was pen pals with the parents of Hays native Bryan Nichols. Jerry and Cindy Nichols now live in Palco. Jerry is a Vietnam veteran.
“Ironically enough, I lost my nephew in Afghanistan, so he is also on these towers,” Breeden said, “and they are both pictured on the exact same tower, my nephew and Bryan.”
“We think there was some divine intervention there maybe that we got chosen to be his pen pal family.”
Bryan Nichols, 31, a 1998 graduate of Thomas More Prep-Marian High School, was killed August 6, 2011, one of 30 American troops who died in Afghanistan when their Chinook helicopter was shot down.
Also aboard the helicopter was Dave Carter, 47, a 1982 graduate of Hays High School whose family is now in Colorado.
The Nichols have been interviewed numerous time by the media about their son and his mission.
“Cindy and I have a direct connection through Bryan as well as the other people that were lost on the same mission that day,” said Jerry Nichols. “It’s just very emotional being here and seeing the magnitude of people who lost their lives in defense of 9/11.”
The Nichols met with a Kansas City family Friday whose son served with Bryan.
“We kind of keep in touch with those members that were with Bryan, especially his crew area,” said Cindy. “But this is amazing community outpouring. I didn’t realize it could be this big.”
“Since the declaration of ‘The War on Terror,’ we’ve lost almost 7,000 heroes,” Fritz reminded the crowd in Andreson Memorial Park, “and there will be more. We currently have on the towers 70 percent of those that voluntarily gave their life for freedom.”
Plainville High School sophomore, Benjamin Hansen is 16 years old. He was one of many local volunteers reading the more than 5,000 names currently listed on the pictorial towers.
He admits he was a little nervous when he took his turn at the podium, but “this whole experience and seeing all these pictures and those names and reading more about them on there” has helped make it real.
The ‘war on terrorism’ has been discussed in a couple of Hansen’s classes.
“It’s just surprising that happened here,” he says of the airplane terrorist attacks in New York City, at the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Penn. 18 years ago. “And think of all those security measures that have changed.” Now Hansen understands why.
Two Plainville residents have also died, both as a result of PTSD. Navy corpsman Andy Brown, 27, died Feb. 17, 2017. Lynn Pfaff was part of the 388th Medical Logistics unit of the Army Reserves. She died Feb. 16, 2019.
“I think people are shocked when they walk up to the towers,” said Hachmeister. “They’re very visual. They’re going to punch you in the face.”
Each person is shown wearing their military uniform in a formal picture. A second inset picture shows them in an informal setting, with family or enjoying a favorite hobby.
“We want them to be remembered because that’s how we keep them alive,” Hachmeister said.
Sheila and her husband Ken Hachmeister of rural Natoma have two sons serving in the military. Jared is a 2017 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy currently stationed in Pensacola. Seth is currently a West Point cadet at the U.S. Military Academy.
The Hachmeisters were in Philadelphia for the Army-Navy football game this last fall and happened to walk past the display at Independence National Park, on which they quickly found the picture of Bryan Nichols.
Hachmeister approached Fritz and asked how to get it to Plainville, a town with a population of just 1,500 people.
Nearly a year later, the memorial display and its entourage were escorted Thursday into Plainville by the American Legion Riders Chapter 173, Hays.
During her speech Friday, Hachmeister thanked all the Rooks County residents and many others who pulled together to host the event.
The memorial remained open 24/7 until the closing ceremony Sunday afternoon.
The Plainville stop was the first in Kansas (west of Kansas City) for the national display. It made its debut at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2017 and has so far traveled to 29 states.