ELKHART — Tom Williams has a lot to say about his son, Jesse — the young soldier who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan on Dec. 17.
According to the proud father, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams was a cool guy, someone you could kick back and drink a beer with.
“He was definitely my best friend, ever,” the elder Williams said on Friday, Dec. 27 — a few hours after watching a large procession carry Jesse’s remains from the South Bend Regional Airport to Billings Funeral Home in Elkhart.
Tom Williams said his son, who was born in Elkhart, lived with him in Goshen for about five years as a teen and young adult. Jesse Williams attended Goshen High School and the Merit Learning Center for a time, before getting his GED later on, Williams said.
He said that Jesse worked a few factory jobs before he decided that “just wasn’t for him” and joined the Army.
“He thought about it for maybe three or four months before he decided that’s the direction he wanted to go,” Tom Williams remembered.
Once he joined the military, Jesse “grew up real quick,” his father said.
“Just about everything changed,” Tom Williams said. “From his eating habits, to taking everything so much more serious. He never exaggerated about anything. When he told us something, that’s how it was.”
Jesse also became dedicated to physical fitness.
“Probably the last five years or so, he was extremely athletic,” Tom Williams said. “Girls would just melt, because standing there in a bathing suit, he had an eight-pack. He didn’t even have to tighten his muscles or anything. He was a real soldier.”
Just after Jesse finished boot camp, his grandfather and Tom’s father, Thomas Lyman Williams, passed away.
Jesse had admired his grandfather, especially his service during World War II and the Korean War, Tom Williams said. He thinks that Jesse was further inspired to pursue a military career after learning more about his grandfather’s military history at his funeral.
Thomas Lyman Williams, in fact, was the one who brought the Williams family to Goshen in the first place. In 1974, he moved his family — including 15-year-old Tom — from Detroit to Goshen to work at a CNC machine company, back when that manufacturing process was new.
Later, he served as president of the Goshen Chamber of Commerce and was a board member for Salem Bank in Goshen.
“Jesse was pretty impressed by his grandfather,” Tom Williams said.
Once Jesse was involved with the military, Tom only saw his son when he was home on leave. The two communicated over the phone and on Facebook, though — and Jesse was never far from his father’s thoughts.
“I thought about him all the time at work,” Tom said. “I kept his photo at work, on my toolbox. I work with some of Jesse’s friends. ... We talk about him all the time.”
When he did come home, Tom remembers his son as being patriotic — “I’ve got a flag in my yard, and he would always start humming the anthem” — and attentive to his 6-year-old daughter, Madison.
Having Madison was “a little odd for Jesse at first,” said his father, “but he didn’t have any choice but to figure out how to be a father. And he loved it, he loved every minute of it.”
Tom Williams’s voice cracked a little as he talked about the last time he saw his son, several months ago. The two had gone on a drive in Jesse’s new car, talked about Jesse’s younger sister Rosie and her husband, and checked out some guns that Jesse had recently purchased.
“I loved hanging out with the guy — he was cool,” Tom Williams said. “I wish I had another 30 years to spend with him.”
He’s surprised by, but appreciative of, local people who turned out on Friday along the processional route, saying that the event felt “almost presidential.”
“I didn’t know him as a hero, he was just a military man,” Tom said. “He was just my son.”
Williams’ visitation is set for 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 2, at Granger Community Church, 630 E. University Drive, Mishawaka. The funeral will be at 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 3, at the church, with visitation beginning at 11 a.m. Interment will immediately follow the funeral service in Rice Cemetery in Elkhart.