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Memorial Day ceremony at Florida National Cemetery honors fallen U.S. troops

BUSHNELL

The sequence is by now a familiar one for Jack and Maria Williams, but one they never thought they would have to get used to.

An invocation opens. Carefully chosen words are said to honor the fallen. A wreath is laid. Amazing Grace groans from the bagpipes. The 21-gun salute startles. Taps brings more tears. The benediction closes.

The Williamses, of Winter Haven, watched all of these elements of the annual Memorial Day ceremony at the Florida National Cemetery on Monday standing near the grave of their son, U.S. Marine Sgt. Christian Bautista Williams.

Sgt. Williams, the eldest of four children, was killed July 29, 2006, when a suicide bomber drove a propane truck packed with explosives into a roadside checkpoint in Iraq's Al Anbar province. He was 27.

He was interred nine days later in a plot just a stone's throw away from the cemetery's central memorial, which sits in an oak grove at the top of a gently sloping hillside.

It was in that circular space anchored by a fountain where a Marine handed Maria Williams the folded flag that had draped her son's casket.

"It was beautiful," Williams, 51, recalled as she stood in the still dewy grass near the grave site, her face shielded from the sun by the desert camouflage hat her son was wearing when he died.

On Monday, a crowd that cemetery officials estimated at more than 2,000 gathered around the memorial to pay tribute to sacrifices like the one Sgt. Williams made.

"I never visualized myself in this situation," his father, Jack Williams, 54, a Navy veteran, said moments before the ceremony began. "He was 10 feet tall and bulletproof."

Williams noted the addition of more gravestones, and it was clear to him that there are families with wounds even fresher than his.

"It's still easy to remember when Christian was the last one in the row, and we keep getting more in front," he said.

One of the nearby markers bears the name of Army Sgt. Eric Ramirez, who was killed in Iraq in 2004 at the age of 31. His father, Pastor Feliciano Ramirez, gave the invocation Monday.

The elder Ramirez, who is also mayor of the city of Mascotte, urged the crowd not to forget those who served.

"Our children must know who they were, what they did and why they died," Ramirez said. "Anything less will be a disservice to their memory."

Thomas Bowman, a senior adviser for the Veterans Integrated Service Network and the guest speaker for the ceremony, encouraged action in the form of volunteerism for veterans' causes.

"Ask yourselves, what more can I do to remember, honor and respect the sacrifice that others have made on my behalf?" Bowman said.

Before he gave the benediction, Pastor Harold Marcou called the cemetery "a little piece of heaven." The chaplain for the Joint Veterans Committee said the breeze rustling through the trees was the sound of fallen loved ones talking. He offered a translation.

"We'd like to take your prayers when you say them and your love," Marcou said. "But do us a favor, don't just come on the holidays. Come more often."

After a flyover by the Ye Mystic Airkrewe closed the ceremony, the Williams family gathered again around Christian Williams' grave.

The stern-faced young man in full military dress looked out from a framed photo placed above his tombstone. Eight sticks of incense burned as an offering for his soul and those of seven others in the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion killed in Iraq during that tour.

For Maria Williams, a daily visit wouldn't be enough.

"There's nothing I can do that will be sufficient, because they gave everything," she said. "God's plan for Christian was great, because he made him someone who will never be forgotten."

Reach Tony Marrero at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Memorial Day ceremony at Florida National Cemetery honors fallen U.S. troops 05/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 8:11pm]
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