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Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, 25, Santa Rosa; killed by a sniper on his second tour of Iraq

June 10, 2007|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

In a letter to his father, meant to be read in the event of his death, Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, 25, wrote: "Don't let me be forgotten in Santa Rosa.... Tell them I died for you and them."

Since Williams was killed on Easter Sunday by a sniper in Iraq, his wish has been granted again and again.

Hundreds of people lined U.S. Highway 101 to pay tribute as a hearse carrying his body traveled 70 miles in a motorcade from San Francisco International Airport to Santa Rosa, Calif. Later, more than 1,000 attended his memorial service.

And on Memorial Day, his father, Herb, a political consultant, gave a keynote speech at an event honoring soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for the country.

"I have grieved Jesse and will grieve him some more ... but I shall celebrate him in my heart every day ... not just on the last Monday in May," he said. "My son is but one of the fallen. His brothers and sisters are buried in cemeteries all over this globe. If we want to be worthy of their sacrifices ... we should, we must, celebrate them all every day."

Williams, who was awarded a Purple Heart after shrapnel struck his arm during a clash with insurgents on his first tour of Iraq, was posthumously given his second Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his rescue of two soldiers from a burning vehicle three weeks before his death.

Williams was fatally wounded while traveling in an armored vehicle with a squad of soldiers in Baqubah, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, the Army said.

He was assigned to the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) at Ft. Lewis, Wash.

Williams, who joined the Army in 2001, returned to Iraq for his second tour in December after spending time at home with his wife, Sonya, 26, and their daughter, Amaya, whose first birthday was May 22.

His wife said the outpouring of support has helped her through a wrenching time.

"It was so beautiful to see so many people come out and support a soldier that they didn't even know," she said. "I hope every soldier gets the same thing, because everyone deserves it."

She said her husband was a "charming and humorous" man, who on their wedding day promised to make her laugh every day for the rest of her life. She said she wants Amaya to know her father.

"I had a videographer record everything -- from the moment the plane carrying Jesse was taxing down the runaway," she said. "I want Amaya [to] one day see the impact her father had on so many lives."

At the end of a video will that Williams left, he told his wife not to worry. Holding up Amaya to the camera, Williams told his wife: "This is me left behind."

Santa Rosa Mayor Bob Blanchard, a family friend who knew Williams well, said, "He'd walk into a room and he'd light it up. He was quick-thinking, quick-acting, always in the fray, always leading the charge."

Blanchard said Williams was a "soldier's soldier" who loved the military.

Williams "was proud to do what he did," his wife said. "He wanted to be a hero -- and he is."

Herb Williams said that his son's sacrifice has given him a keener appreciation for America's freedoms.

"We take so many of our freedoms for granted," he said. "I know I do ... or I did."

Herb Williams, who reared Jesse, his youngest, as a single father, recalled that his son was always bringing home new friends for him to meet.

"He didn't know a stranger," he said.

Jesse Williams and his father were exceptionally close, communicating with each other almost every day, even when Jesse was away.

When Jesse was very young, his father made up a ditty: "I love Jesse and Jesse loves me and we are as happy as we can be."

When he sang, his son would respond "doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah." When Jesse sang, his father did the "doo-wah" refrain.

The day before Williams left for Iraq, he wrote the ditty on the white board in his father's office. He also left a video disc in case he did not make it back home.

"The last thing he did on the disc was to sing me the 'doo-wah' song," Herb Williams said.

Now, his daughter-in-law sings the song to his granddaughter.

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