ELKHART — “Just a scrawny kid” when he joined the military almost eight years ago, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Lee Williams, who died Tuesday, Dec. 17, in the Middle East, is being remembered by friends and his family as a loving father and a strong soldier.
Williams, who was born in Elkhart, was on a Black Hawk transport helicopter with five other soldiers that crashed in Afghanistan, according to his family.
The Associated Press confirmed with two U.S. defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, that one person on board the Black Hawk UH-60 was injured and survived. The total number of people that were on the helicopter is unclear.
A statement issued by the NATO international military coalition said the crash is under investigation and that there was no insurgent activity in the area at the time of the crash.
“He was one brave young man,” said Williams' mother, Debbie Bussard Passerallo.
Passerallo said her son was on his third deployment and had joined the military to work on computers. He left on Father's Day in June to go to Germany. From there, he was deployed to Afghanistan.
“He was big and strong,” Passerallo said. “He didn't let things get him down. When he was a friend, he was a friend forever.”
Williams attended Elkhart Central High School and graduated third in his class from a U.S. Army information technology program, according to his mother.
Serving in the military became his passion. He was promoted to staff sergeant about two weeks ago.
“He loved it,” said Amanda Caldwell, the mother of Williams' 6-year-old daughter, Madison. “He didn't want to do anything else.”
Caldwell said Williams was a loyal Michigan State football fan and enjoyed working out at the gym, but most of all, he loved spending time with his daughter.
“He was the best father to Madison,” Caldwell said. “He loved everything that he did. He loved his family and friends so much.”
The Elkhart Truth wrote about Williams in 2008, when he came home from Iraq for a short leave and met Madison for the first time.
Passerallo said her son and granddaughter would see each other when Williams was on leave.
“They would go to the beach, they would go to the zoo, he would take her to the bounce houses, and they would go out to the park,” Passerallo said. “He was very active with her.”
Passerallo said she wants her son to be remembered for his positive outlook on life.
“He was always putting inspirational messages on his Facebook page for his friends, even over there,” she said. “'You could be anything you want to be,' he would say. 'Just go and do it and try.'”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.