BUSHNELL — Everything stopped the day Derrick Lettau got the phone call from the sister of his best friend, Christian Williams.
Her brother, she told him, had been killed when a truck filled with petroleum crashed into a military checkpoint her brother was manning in Iraq.
"I couldn't breathe," Lettau said, thinking back to the moment he heard that his best friend was dead. "I couldn't do anything."
That was in June 2006. On Monday, Lettau, 29, of Winter Haven stuck his green retractable chair 10 feet in front of his best friend's gray stone marker. He wore khaki shorts, so he'd be sure to show the large tattoo he had inked on his calf honoring his friend.
Lettau was one of about 500 people who paid tribute to American soldiers during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Florida National Cemetery on Monday morning.
Williams and Lettau both enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from Lake Region High School. The two trained in North Carolina, but Lettau was medically discharged before Williams was deployed to Afghanistan in 2001. He still remembers what it was like when he was at home in Winter Haven while his best friend fought enemies thousands of miles away.
"Constant worrying," he said. "I felt just like a parent."
Six months after his term in Afghanistan ended, Williams wanted to re-enlist and fight in Iraq. His dad, Jack, protested, but Williams insisted.
"He said if he didn't go back, somebody else would have to," Jack Williams said.
After almost two years, it's still hard to cope with his son's death, the father said.
"Moments get further apart, but when they come back, they're just as bad."
But not all the memories are sad. Lettau, Jack Williams and Christian's brother Vincent Williams laughed about a photo they saw of clean-cut Christian wrist-deep in grease and oil trying to fix a car.
"He used to be a little preppy boy," Lettau said, adding he and others called Williams a metrosexual for being so cleanly dressed and well-manicured.
He was short, too, his family said. Vincent Williams said he stood about 3 inches taller than his brother, who was 10 years his senior. "He would never admit it, though," Vincent said.
The Williamses weren't alone with the laughs and sorrow they shared in remembering their loved one at the Memorial Day ceremony.
Patricia Norwood, 41, of Brooksville knelt by the grave of her father, a World War II veteran who died in 1992.
Betty Peltz, 75, of Leesburg came to honor her late husband, Joseph, a Vietnam veteran who died June 14, Flag Day, in 2005. The two met on a blind date in January 1952 and got married on July 5 that same year.
Pablo Remis, 7, wore a military blazer, a green hat and a black tie as he roamed about the cemetery telling stories of his grandfather, Johnnie Reaves. Reaves, a World War II veteran, died in January.
Young and old, those who ventured to the cemetery Monday wanted to hear of, share of and commemorate those whose stories are forever tucked away in rows of gray.
That's comforting to Vincent Williams, who still has people tell him stories about his brother, Christian.
"People get afraid they're going to be forgotten," Vincent said. "My brother never will."
Michael Sanserino can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1430.