GRANGER — Who was Army Staff Sergeant Jesse Williams?
Friends of the young soldier who died in Afghanistan in December tried to answer that question at Williams' funeral Friday, Jan. 3 — and it didn't take long for a theme to emerge.
Williams was determined. He didn't complain. He easily inspired those around him to do better. Family was his priority.
Sgt. First Class Janice Pleasant, who had served alongside Williams in Afghanistan, said Williams talked about his family back home constantly — especially his daughter, 6-year-old Madison.
“He talked about his family a lot, but his number one prize was Madison,” Pleasant said.
Madison had sent him a picture she had drawn of herself, Pleasant said, and Williams proudly displaying the drawing on his desk and “talked about it for days” with co-workers.
“She was the light that kept him going,” Pleasant said.
Private Josh Sizemore also spoke about Williams, saying that Williams had saved his life during a time when he needed help.
“He means so much more to me than what I could ever express in words,” Sizemore said, struggling to speak through emotion. “I promise I won't let his legacy down.”
Jeremy Replogle, a lifetime friend of Williams, said Williams' decision to join the Army — and his change in demeanor afterward — inspired him to turn his life around too.
“My life has changed because of him,” Replogle said. “Just the way he presented himself and carried himself — he was always pushing to be better.”
Between 700 and 800 people attended the funeral Friday afternoon, according to a spokesperson for Granger Community Church. Among those were U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly and Congresswoman Jackie Walorski.
“On behalf of the people of the United States and a grateful nation, we want to thank you for Jesse's dedication...and your sacrifice,” Donnelly said, addressing Williams' family at the funeral.
Walorski said she felt “heartsick” about William's death. She also offered thanks to the Patriot Guard Riders for their presence and support, adding she had never seen anything like it.
The Patriot Guard, a nonprofit group committed to helping families after a military death, again surrounded the church and the graveside service at Rice Cemetery, holding American flags. The Westboro Baptist Church group did not protest at Williams' funeral, though the group had stated in a press release that they would attend.
Also speaking at the funeral was Army Brigadier General William Scott, who reminded those listening that Williams also had a family relationship with the Army.
“The strength of our nation is with our Army, and the strength of our Army is with our soldiers,” he said. “But the strength of the soldiers is with the families and the communities that support them.”
Scott said that he was impressed by the show of support that the local community had shown in the past few days for Williams.
Arvis Dawson, executive assistant to Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore, offered a few words, saying that the city of Elkhart is supportive of Williams' family.
“We all have so much love for (Williams), but that's all we have,” Dawson said. “So little, when he gave so much.”
Following the funeral at Granger Community Church, Williams was laid to rest in Rice Cemetery in Elkhart with military honors.