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Hundreds attend memorial in California for fallen soldier

VISALIA, Calif. -- Standing above the flag-draped casket of her 19-year-old godson, Pfc. Keith Williams, Rebecca Mueller tearfully removed her sweater and turned to show a sea of hundreds her long red cape.

Williams, she said, valued laughter and fun. She knew he was watching his Saturday morning memorial service at the First Assembly of God Church in Visalia and "loving every minute of it." Mueller wanted to do something for him.
Proudly displaying her cape -- and met with applause, laughter and tears -- Mueller proclaimed of the Visalia teen, "You're my Superman."

The young man was a hero to hundreds who mourned his death and celebrated his life on Saturday. Williams was killed July 24 in Afghanistan after the Army truck he was riding in hit an improvised explosive device during a patrol.

He was knocked unconscious and airlifted to a nearby base. A chaplain was there when he arrived and held Williams' hand. His father, Frankie Williams, takes comfort in that: "He was with a man of God when he went to the other side."

Before Williams was deployed in March to Afghanistan as "a warrior of freedom," Mueller reminded the crowd, "he was a kid."

"He was a son, he was a brother, he was an uncle ... a fun-hearted, loving soul."

That spirit was evident in a video that included clips of Williams in all his glory.

Those attending the memorial service laughed as they heard Williams sing in funny tempos, dance in a parking lot with friends, longboard down a street in a bright red one-piece pajama suit and walk around his house duct-taped from shoulders to feet.

"He would do anything to make you laugh," Mueller said. "The joke was never on you; it was always on him."

His mother, Debbie Tuttle, recalled a slew of beloved facial expressions he liked to employ to get his friends and family to crack a smile. She described his "Keithness" as an ability to "just make you feel so good." Her son wouldn't want people to focus on his death, she said -- he'd want them to remember the joy of his life.

That life included a love for many activities: drumming, surfing, snowboarding, longboarding, "jedi knight training" and metal music -- even though he was known to play classical music by composer Frédéric Chopin beautifully on the piano.

After the church service, hundreds filled the bleachers along the field at El Diamante High School in Visalia -- Williams was a graduate -- for a Native American and military honors ceremony. Williams identified with his Christian faith and traditions of the Wukchumni, a band within the Tule River Tribe.

The service featured a blend of groups -- uniformed military, tribal members, the American Indian Veterans Association and the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle group. Together, they held more than 50 large American flags or walked beside Williams' casket as it was taken onto the field.

They honored Williams with native drumming and singing, the waving of sacred eagle feathers and smoking sage, a ceremonial military gun volley, a bugle playing taps, and the presentation of the flag that draped his casket.

Randy George, deputy commander of the Fourth Infantry Division in Fort Carson, Colo., said Williams was a great soldier: "Tough, athletic, incredibly smart and more concerned about his team than himself."

In return for his selfless service to his country, George said, "May we each resolve to honor him and all our fallen heroes by striving to live inspired lives worthy of their sacrifice."

Earlier at the church, Mueller talked about a photo she saw recently of Williams. Although he must have been in high school at the time, he was wearing a black cape and "frolicking," she said with a laugh.

"When I saw that, through all my grief, I remembered what a beautiful soul he was and that he would be wanting us to remember him through our laughter and through joy because that's really who he was."

She's going to miss his smile and "that sparkle in his eye," but after talking to his family, she said, she realized his sparkle still lives in all of them.

"I heard his laughter in all of their voices," she said. "I was blessed to have known him, and I will look forward to seeing him again on the other side."

cgeorge@fresnobee.com

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