Thursday, February 22, 2018
Military News

Rain-soaked crowds honor fallen Brooksville soldier Army Spc. Clarence Williams III

BROOKSVILLE

Evan Alexandre stood near the curb on Jefferson Street and waved two small American flags as the rain steadily fell on his head.

The 9-year-old boy knew exactly why it was important to be out there Wednesday morning, as he was joined by rows of people lining either side of the road downtown.

"This man is really kind to protect the U.S.A.," Evan said.

The man of whom he spoke was Army Spc. Clarence Williams III, the 23-year-old Brooksville soldier who was killed by a roadside bomb earlier this month in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, his body arrived at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

Dozens of people, shrugging off the persistent rain, stood along Hernando County roads on the processional route to honor the return of the fallen soldier.

They waved small flags and wore red, white and blue. They saluted or covered their heart with their hand. They fought back tears and murmured prayers softly as the hearse passed, on its way to Carnegie Funeral Home in Chiefland.

Williams, a 2008 Hernando High School graduate, was killed July 8, along with five other members of his battalion, when their armored vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device. Among them was another Tampa Bay-area soldier, 31-year-old Staff Sgt. Ricardo Seija of Tampa.

Sandra Alexandre took her son, Evan, and 16-year-old daughter to pay their respect.

But it was more than that. Alexandre has two daughters and two sons-in-law serving in the Air Force.

"I thought it would be nice for my son and daughter to come out here and honor (Williams), as I would hope people who do with my child," she said. "We wanted to show Mr. Williams' family that we felt for them, that we understand that their children are serving our country."

It's a message that resonated throughout the crowd.

"We just feel it's our duty to come out and show our respect for a fellow who gave his life for us," said Richard Origon, a volunteer with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.

There was a large Sheriff's Office contingent downtown, standing in a line wearing matching yellow rain slickers.

In high school, Williams joined the Hernando Sheriff's Office Explorer post, a volunteer program designed to give teens a firsthand look at law enforcement. He also had dreams of one day becoming a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, like his father, Clarence Jr.

A short distance from the main crowd downtown, 22 children from Ellie's Day Care in Brooksville gathered along the road, some covering themselves in towels to ward off the rain.

The day care had taken the morning to teach the kids about freedom and paying respect. The kids talked about their own heroes.

Rita Robinson, the center's owner, said Williams' mother, Talisa, worked there in the late 1990s.

"It weighs heavy on your heart," Robinson said, holding a large umbrella.

Several dozen people lined Jefferson near its intersection with Broad Street, on the east end of downtown.

As the procession passed, Gillian Clark leaned over her daughter, Liberty. The red-headed 4-year-old wanted to know what was happening. Her mother explained again.

"That's the soldier that died," Clark said. "Remember I told you?"

Clark, a 28-year-old Brooksville native, met Williams a few times over the years.

Watching the hearse roll by also evoked a sad sense of deja vu. Clark graduated in 2002 with her close friend Lea Mills, a Masarkytown resident who was killed in the war in Iraq in 2006.

"I think that's the hardest part for me," Clark said. "Reliving it all."

Clark gave her daughter the middle name Lea in honor of her friend.

Katie Bechtelheimer also showed up Wednesday. The 2007 Hernando High graduate went to school with Williams and remembers him as the kind of student who transcended cliques. "He was just the person who talked to everybody," said Bechtelheimer, a graduate student at the University of South Florida. "I'm just glad I was here."

After the hearse passed, Bechtelheimer walked the few steps to her mother's shop, Westover's Flowers and Gifts. The store put together centerpieces for Williams' wake, which will take place this evening.

Wrapped in a camouflage base, the centerpieces include two American flags, a wooden cross, a picture of Williams and a single red rose.

Tonda Wells of Brooksville, a friend of the Williams family, was pleased and touched to see all of the people who came out Wednesday. "It's a blessing," the 41-year-old Wells said. "That's what it's all about — showing love."

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]

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