Jul 20 2022
Steve Ranson | Nevada Appeal
The months leading to the dedication of the Gold Star Families Memorial in Sparks passed quickly with June 29 heavily circled on many calendars.
Several weeks prior to the dedication in 2019, Medal of Honor recipients Hershel “Woody” Williams and Donald “Doc” Ballard arrived at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport to finalize the dedication with members from the Nevada Gold Star Memorial Foundation and other volunteers.
Williams and Ballard experienced the friendliness of the West by attending a performance of the Reno Rodeo where both men not only saw … but felt … the heartfelt patriotism permeating the arena.
Williams received the Medal of Honor from then President Harry S. Truman for his heroism at the Battle of Iwo Jima on Feb. 21, 1945. The Marine corporal showed bravery when facing Japanese fire and took out numerous pieces of equipment and killed enemy soldiers.
After the war, Williams felt a strong need existed to remember the men and women who were killed in service to their country. The West Virginia native took his idea another step forward. He stablished a foundation 12 years ago to honor Gold Star families, relatives and children and for them to honor and remember their loved ones. His foundation has stablished 104 Gold Star Families Memorials across the United States and into one territory.
We will always remember both the heroism and unselfish sacrifice of Williams, who died June 29, three years to the day when he and others dedicated the Northern Nevada memorial. His body lay in state at the U.S. Capitol on July 14. Williams had been the last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient.
“In our state of West Virginia where it started, we got the very first one (memorial) started in 2013,” Williams had said at the Sparks dedication.
Williams, though, was surprised Gold Star families didn’t receive the recognition or acknowledgement of losing a loved one. While the Woody Williams Foundation has been busy researching areas for additional Gold Star memorials such as one in Southern Nevada, the State of Nevada also honors our departed veterans at the Battle Born Memorial south of the Capitol building in Carson City and soon with the Nevada Veterans Memorial Plaza in Sparks.
The black granite memorial at the Northern Nevada State Veterans Home has two sides, one facing south that represents a tribute to Gold Star Families and the other side that looks north tells a story on four panels of Homeland, Family, Patriot and Sacrifice. A cutout in the panel’s center symbolizes the loved one who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Thinking of Williams also brings me back to Fallon. Nevada’s only World War II Medal of Honor recipient, Bruce Van Voorhis, attended school in the Lahontan Valley before receiving an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated from the academy in 1929.
Not quite two years into the war, Van Voorhis, who was piloting PB4Y-1 Liberator 31992 on a volunteer reconnaissance mission, and his crew died at the southernmost of the Eastern Caroline Islands near Hare Island of the Kapingamarangi Atoll. The Churchill County High School graduate knew he was going to die, yet he also realized his actions in the South Pacific during July 1943 could prevent a surprise attack on American forces.
Ballard, whom I first met and interviewed in 2017, served side-by-side with the Marines in Vietnam as a Navy corpsman. According to numerous accounts, Ballard shielded five Marines by flinging himself on a grenade, but the device didn’t explode. Immediately, he hurriedly threw the grenade away from his comrades where it exploded.
Ballard had also served on the Woody Williams Foundation Board and attended the dedication in Sparks.
“I am here to support Woody Williams and the Gold Star Family Memorial,” he said at the time. “We started that conversation a few years back when I was here before (January 2018) and got together with Jon (Yuspa) and some of the movers and shakers in the community and everybody commented It was a good idea.”
Yuspa, executive director of Honor Flight Nevada, had taken an active role with the Nevada Gold Star Memorial Foundation.
Ballard added the memorial would be a healing source for families. It’s also a healing source for those who know the parents, the brothers or sisters, the grandparents of those who are no longer with us. Behind the Fallon City Hall are memorials dedicated to area’s sons and daughters who had died from World War I to Afghanistan.
There at the June 29 dedication were friends who had a son or daughter die while serving their country. Steve Ward’s son Eric was only 19 years old when he died in combat in Afghanistan in February 2010.
On an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., over the D-Day weekend in 2019 and less than a month before the Sparks dedication, we stopped at Arlington National Cemetery where Eric is interred. Steve, who lives in Yerington, asked several others on the bus to accompany him to his son’s final resting place, and he wanted me to document the visit through the lens of a camera.
Likewise, I have known South Lake Tahoe resident Kenny Curtzwiler for almost 40 years, beginning with our days spent together in the Nevada Army National Guard. His son died by suicide after leaving the Navy, and his daughter, whom I first met when I was commander of the State Area Command in the late 1990s, died on Sept. 6, 2011, with two other Nevada Army National Guard soldiers and a civilian woman in the Carson City IHOP Restaurant shooting.
After the ceremony, Curtzwiler told me Ballard used some powerful words that resonated with the retired major.
“Dads cry too, and the other thing is 22 (the number of veteran suicides in a day) is too many,” Curtzwiler said. “For him to touch on a subject like this during his ceremony was powerful.”
Ballard established that bridge from person to another. Woody Williams, though, also had the insight to move forward years ago to ensure we don’t forget the families who have had a loved ones die in service to their country. Through states such as Nevada building their own memorials and the Woody Williams Foundation reaching out to families, no one — especially families — will be forgotten.