ATASCADERO - On June 29, nearly 600 people gathered at Atascadero’s Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial to celebrate the life of the founding chair of the Memorial Foundation.
A man without whom, said attendees, the monument wouldn’t exist in its current form.
Col. William John Hatch went by Bill through his two decades of involvement in Atascadero’s community life, starting with his service as Commander of the California National Guard’s Officer Candidate School, Commander of Camp San Luis Obispo and Commander of Camp Roberts.
Lt. Col. Al Fonzi, who served under Col. Hatch at Camp Roberts, before becoming his vice-chair on the founding Board of the Memorial Foundation, said Col. Hatch was one of the best commanding officers he’d ever known, and a man who was able to carry his mission focus through to accomplish any task, “he was a soldier’s soldier. He thought about them first and last in any situation.”
“The Colonel” as friends also referred to him, earned military bearing in youth, graduating West Point Military Academy in 1972 with a group of men that stayed close through the rest of his life, and before coming to the Central Coast, spent a 28-year career on active duty during which his actions on the battlefield and as a leader distinguished him.
As Fonzi noted, Col. Hatch, “rode with the cavalry charge,” into Iraq during the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, commanding a battalion of Apache Attack helicopters in the Army’s 1st Armored Division in battle against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Republican Guard.
For those and other efforts, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star among numerous service branch decorations.
As attendees dispersed after Military Honors, and a horse-drawn caisson receded, bearing a replica statue of the monument in Col. Hatch’s honor, sculptor Mark Greenaway explained how the Colonel had helped shape the work.
The bronze of historical American soldiers in the garb of different eras — World War I through the Occupation of Iraq — merged with the flag is permanently associated with Col. Hatch, but Greenaway said in addition to organizational talent his impact on the art was to help get it right.
“He supported me through the whole process,” Greenaway said, adding that, as a technical advisor Col. Hatch guided his depictions and brought in active-duty soldiers for a review.”
As those who were unable to attend the further reception paid their respects, Lt. Col. Dan Dow, San Luis Obispo County’s District Attorney in addition to his National Guard obligations, spotted the commemorative brick bearing Col. Hatch’s name in the memorial’s walkway.
The bricks, side by side with those bearing the inscriptions of the extended Hatch family, date to the completion of the site 10 years ago. As he snapped a cell phone photo, Lt. Col. Dow noted that he was glad to be there to represent some of Col. Hatch’s comrades with active reserve obligations for the day. Many were on exercises for the weekend while more were attending the installation ceremonies of the 40th Infantry Division’s new commanding officer.
At the reception inside the Pavilion at the Lake, Ann Hatch further eulogized her husband of 38 years saying that if he were here, “Bill would say buck up, chin up, put your shoulders back,” and noted that each group of people and chapter of his life represented in the room were dear to his life.
His ability to bring people together under unique circumstances was his gift, she added, noting that he was the type of guy who would stop and help a stranded cyclist in the middle of the night without a second thought.
His generosity of spirit was recognized by fellow community members in the months leading to his passing from brain cancer, as the Kiwanis Club held a fundraiser in March to help the Hatch family with the extraordinary costs incurred by his illness.
Recognized for his contributions in civilian life as well as a storied career, the Kiwanis went to the aid of their past club director, president and even their one time candidate in the local Dancing With Our Stars fundraiser in his hour of need.
In April, Ann Hatch expressed the family’s appreciation, writing in an open letter that, “Each of you have given Bill and I the greatest of gifts…your support, your love and your friendship. We never realized just how many good friends and family we have. You have been there with heartfelt words and warm hugs. You have been there with delicious meals and with rolled up sleeves. You have been there when we needed you the most and you reassured us we were not alone.”
In his obituary, the family wrote, “On May 16, 2019, from the comfort of his own bed and surrounded by his family Colonel William (Bill) Hatch ultimately conquered the brain cancer he had valiantly fought since September of 2018.”