Nancy Fassbender

Nancy Fassbender holds a rendering of the proposed memorial for fallen veterans from Pinal County. Opening is set for Memorial Day 2021.

CASA GRANDE -- Samuel Clarke sailed the seas with the British Navy. He died fighting with the U.S. Army in France.

It was September 1918, at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel.

He might have lived, had he not been so set on doing his part for freedom.

By the time the U.S. entered World War I, Clarke was living in Casa Grande. He went to Phoenix to enlist. He flunked his physical because he was color blind. So he made his way to Los Angeles, on his own dime. This time recruiters signed him up. It could be, by then, the Army was short on recruits, so it lifted the ban on color blindness.

Ready to fight, Clarke went to join his men. But he missed the troop train. He had no money and no way to join the others. They had gone to Florence, Arizona, perhaps for training. He was all but ready to call it quits. That is, until somebody stepped up and helped Clarke get back to Arizona.

He joined his troops and fought in the U.S. Army’s first big offensive. Clarke was killed on Sept. 12. He was 18.

How do I know all this? I read it in “My Fallen Hero,” written by Nancy Fassbender, a veteran herself.

Clarke is among 173 servicemen from Pinal County who died in combat. They’re all men, it happens. If just barely, in many cases. Fassbender’s book and the names and stories that went into it took three years of research.

The names are listed by war. World War I has the fewest. World War II the most. If Fassbender had the information, she wrote a brief story about the serviceman’s life. And how he died. Fassbender recounts the lives of 65 men.

Clarke’s story was the first.

Robert Nathaniel Martens was the last. He was killed 87 years after Clarke. He was a Navy medic assigned to a Marine division in Iraq. He was on night patrol in 2005 when his Humvee rolled over. He was 20.

The last recorded death was in 2007. Staff Sgt. Darrel Kasson was with the Army National Guard. He was taking contractors to a worksite in Iraq when an IED tore threw his vehicle. He was 42 and left behind a wife, three children and two grandchildren.

I spoke to Fassbender three years ago, just before the book went into publication. I read some of the stories she had compiled. She had them on galley sheets. I spoke to her again last week and picked up a copy of the book. This time I could take the stories with me.

All for $25.

The money goes to the Pinal County Veterans Memorial in Casa Grande. When built, it will offer quiet reflection about sacrifice and honor. The names of the fallen from Pinal County will be memorialized in bronze plaques. The centerpiece will be a statue of a serviceman embracing a folded American flag.

“He has a trifold flag that you would present to a family,” Fassbender said.

It’s a solemn graveside presentation.

The Pinal County Veterans Memorial Foundation broke ground for the memorial last November. It will take up a corner of Ed Hooper Rodeo Park on Pinal Avenue.

Construction has yet to begin, though I’s and T’s have been dotted and crossed. The city has approved the plans. A general contractor is at the ready.

Could construction start any day? I asked.

“Well, I wouldn’t put that in print, but yes,” Fassbender said.

Timing is important. Ribbon cutting is planned for Memorial Day 2021.

The money to start construction is in the bank. So far some $200,000 has been raised. Another $100,000 is needed. Fassbender has been hard at work to make it happen. She has spoken to any number of groups that support veterans. She has organized annual fundraisers in Gold Canyon, where she lives.

Recently, she planned an event for Vietnam veterans at the Mesa Market Place Swap Meet. Some 1,000 Vietnam vets were to be on hand to receive special pins for their service. Spouses and family members were to receive pins in honor of loved ones who died in Vietnam.

Fassbender has presented the pins before. It’s an emotional experience.

The March 21 Mesa event was not, in itself, a fundraiser. But it could have brought in donations, had it not been canceled. Blame the coronavirus. Government guidelines put a stop to large gatherings. Some 2,000 people were expected.

Fundraising overall has taken a hit, Fassbender added. A spring golf tournament was pushed back to September. Donations to the website have tailed off. It’s the economy in a tailspin.

“People right now are reluctant to donate,” Fassbender said.

Making rent has moved to the front of the line. Worthy causes, however worthy, can seem a bit abstract. A good book, on the other hand, can be just the thing for the lockdown blues.

Perhaps a book like “My Fallen Hero,” filled with stories of men who died for their country. Well, our country, if you want to get technical. There was the Pima code talker from Sacaton. Apparently not all code talkers were Navajo, though a Navajo code talker is in there as well. There’s the Japanese American Army sergeant who was awarded the Medal of Honor. And Target, a dog who braved combat in Afghanistan, only to die in a Pinal County animal shelter.

I can’t overlook the story about the rigged Monopoly games. They helped Allied POWs escape from German prison camps.

A section on the Korean War has a page dedicated to Cpl. Guadalupe Reyes. He died in Korea, in heavy fighting. He was 22. His brother Frank served as Pinal County sheriff for 24 years.

In 2010, Frank had the idea to honor his brother — and all the fallen heroes of Pinal County. He shared his idea with others. On Memorial Day 2021, his idea will come to life, if all goes as planned.

Until then, there’s the book. Go to the website www.pcvmf.org, if you’re interested in a good read. I mean, who wouldn’t want to learn about GI Joe — the pigeon that saved a British brigade.

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Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at bccoates@cox.net.

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