PLAINVILLE — Forrest Robertson was a “big brother to everybody,” his mother, Dody Berg, said.
“There were seven years between him and my next one, so he was everyone’s big brother,” she said Friday, standing among the swaying banners Friday morning in Plainville’s Andreson Park. Around her neck, on a yellow lanyard, was a yellow tag with his name.
Berg, of Wellington, divorced when Robertson was 7, and then ran a daycare, where he helped.
“He was the dad. He just took care of everybody,” she said.
Robertson loved the military and joined the U.S. Army.
“He went in with the idea of being career, and he did. He had 18 1/2 years in,” Berg said.
His “big brother” attitude extended to his fellow soldiers, his mother said.
While in basic training, just before a break for Christmas, he called his mother.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’ve got two boys in my platoon that can’t go home.’ So I said ‘bring them out,’” Berg said.
“Every time he came home on leave, somebody came with him,” she said.
On Nov. 23, 2013 — as he returned to base in Afghanistan on his last mission of his last deployment — Sgt. 1st Class Forrest Robertson, 35, was killed by a sniper.
Keeley Frank and her husband, Randy, also wore name tags on gold lanyards, these with the name of her son, Sgt. Kevin Gilbertson.
Gilbertson was an athlete in high school and liked to race radio control cars, his mother said.
Gilbertson died in 2007 in Ramadi, Iraq, when a car raced through a checkpoint. Gilbertson and several other soldiers chased the car down. When it stopped, a man stepped out and set off the explosives he was wearing, killing two soldiers immediately. One of them was Gilbertson’s best man at his wedding. Gilbertson was transferred to a hospital in Germany but was declared brain dead.
“He’s my hero. Always has been, always will be,” his mother said.
“Kevin was a good soldier. He loved his soldiers and he took care of them very well,” Randy said.
Robertson and Gilbertson are just two of the hundreds of U.S. servicemen and women included in Remembering our Fallen National Tribute, a traveling exhibit of more than 30 towers, each hung with double-sided banners featuring photos of those who have died in service to the country since Sept. 11, 2001.
The display opened Friday and will close at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Plainville resident Sheila Hachmeister saw the display in Philadelphia and got the idea to bring it to Plainville. Her sisters, Lora Weigel and Susan Stahl, were quickly on board, and so were many others in the community of about 1,800.
The trailers carrying the display received an escort from the American Legion Riders and law enforcement on U.S. Highway 183 as it arrived in town Thursday. People lined the streets to welcome the crew and American flags flew from one end of town to the other along the highway. Volunteers including Legion Riders and Plainville High School students descended on the trailers to help unload and set up the towers. Students from Plainville have even participated with a “pen-pal” project with Gold Star families, and assisted the Gold Star families and veterans throughout the tribute’s display this weekend.
Noala Fritz travels with the exhibit, which is produced by Patriotic Productions, Omaha, Neb., and said she was not surprised by the turnout in Plainville.
“You think small towns don’t bring in the people? Small towns are very, very patriotic, and they come out,” Fritz said.
Like Berg and Frank, Fritz is a Gold-Star mom. Her son, Jacob, a first lieutenant in the Army, was executed after being captured in a checkpoint attack on Jan. 20, 2007, in Iraq.
The banners feature a large photo of each serviceman or woman along with a smaller, inset photo of them from their personal lives — wedding photos, family vacations, grade-school pictures, high school portraits. It’s that personal touch that makes the Remembering Our Fallen a special tribute, Fritz said.
“Pictures tell a story,” she said. “The inset picture has the solider, the Marine, man or woman, loving life, loving family, a hobby. You see kids playing violin, guys on horses, mothers with daughters, fathers with children. It humanizes them. It makes you think and realize, the military, they’re heroes. They’re not superheroes we read in the comics or see in a movie. These are real-life heroes. It reminds you they’re just like everybody here,” she said.
Some of Rooks County’s own are among those real-life heroes in the display.
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bryan Nichols was a native of Palco and a 1998 graduate of Thomas More Prep-Marian High School. On Aug. 6, 2011, the Chinook helicopter he was piloting was shot down in Afghanistan, killing him and 29 other servicemen on board. He was two weeks away from a visit home on leave.
Thursday, the day the display arrived in Plainville, would have been Nichols’ 40th birthday. The passage of time has lessened the pain of the family’s loss, but it never goes away, Nichols’ father, Doug, said.
“Sometimes it just hits you like a bolt out of the blue. You don’t forget about it, that’s for sure,” he said.
A set of towers with blue banners signifies those who have died as a result of post-traumatic stress from their service — many from suicide. Lynn Pfaff Easterberg, a Ransom native, appears here, and when a new set of banners is produced, so will Andrew Brown, Plainville.
Easterberg enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves after graduating from Plainville High School in 1998. She served for eight years, including one year in Iraq as part of the 388th Medical Logistics unit. She was one of the first to respond when a truck carrying hazardous material overturned, rescuing the driver. She died Feb. 16.
Brown joined the Navy after graduating from Plainville High School in 2007. After graduating from Field Medical Training Battalion at Camp Pendleton, Calif., he was embedded with a Marine infantry battalion and was deployed to Afghanistan. The battalion encountered what is considered one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in Afghanistan and had some of the highest amounts of enemy contact.
Brown died Feb. 17, 2017. A poster with his picture was displayed among the banners, notes of love and remembrance attached to it from those visiting the display.
Randy Frank, himself a U.S. Army veteran, said it’s important to tell the stories of servicemen and women like his wife’s son.
“We did this because we love our country, no other reason. To continue to tell these guys’ story is our responsibility,” he said. “It’s not just about honoring these guys; it’s about honoring all those who have fallen.”
Fritz has been with Patriotic Productions since 2016, traveling with her fiancé Rick Ward to 29 states for 66 exhibits with “her kids” to share their stories. She said she wished everyone could travel with them and see the America they have seen.
“We still are a melting pot. We still are all American and everyone is willing to work together for a cause. Unfortunately, that’s not always happening. But what Rick and I see is people, all generations all come together to help,” she said.