GRANGER — Four months and a week after Elkhart native Staff Sgt. Jesse Lee Williams was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, his mother said life without him hasn’t gotten any easier.
“It's the way life is now,” Debbie Bussard Passerallo said. “It's just the way it is. We can laugh but I think we cry every day. And we probably just will. It's a big piece of your heart missing. Anybody who's lost a child knows that, and it doesn't matter if they're 3 or 30.”
She spoke those words Thursday, April 24, in the lobby of Granger Community Church, after a brief ceremony in which a congresswoman, a judge, a pastor and military officials thanked her for her son’s sacrifice. About 50 people gathered in a semi-circle in the church’s lobby to watch.
“It's just amazing that people still want to remember him,” Passerallo said. “Our community has overwhelmed me with their love and caring. Ever since we got the word that Jesse was one of those six soldiers, Elkhart and the surrounding community has been nothing but supportive, and it's just amazed me.”
Williams was one of six soldiers killed Dec. 17 when their helicopter crashed in Afghanistan. The 30-year-old was on his third deployment and had been stationed at bases around the world, most recently in Germany.
"It's been said that the American soldier does not fight because he hates who's in front of him," Walorski read to the crowd from prepared remarks. "The American soldier fights because he loves those who are behind him. This is a fitting description of Jesse's devotion to his country and his family."
Moments later, Walorski's voice cracked with emotion as she presented plaques to Passerallo and Williams' father, Tom Williams of Goshen.
"On behalf of a grateful nation, I present this to you in memory of Jesse," Walorski said.
Williams said he was always proud of his son, but even more so after the Army flew him to Germany to attend the fallen soldiers’ memorial ceremony.
"I got to meet all the people he worked with,” he said after Thursday’s Purple Heart ceremony. “It was just unbelievable. They let me know what his job was and how important he was to them. They all said how much of a hero he was. It was a very important job he was doing over there."
Williams, who graduated third in his class from an Army information technology program, said his son used high-tech equipment to remotely assess risk for his fellow soldiers before they entered an area.
“He had several weapons at his command to make sure his soldiers had the least casualties. He had drones and all kinds of stuff he ran off the computer. He could check out a whole area before they sent his troops in. He had the fewest casualties and all of the men wanted to work under him.”
Passerallo said “it’s still hard to feel that he’s gone, but we’re getting there.”
“There's two things you can do when something like this happens,” she said. “It's either curl up in a corner and cry forever, or you can do something. We're hoping to do something.”
The family has created a nonprofit called Jesse’s Warriors, and they’re doing whatever they can to help soldiers and their families, such as having volunteers send care packages overseas. They have a fund-raising motorcycle ride planned for June.
“Jesse always helped everybody,” she said. “He never gave up. He was a little bit harsh sometimes but it's called tough love. He never gave up on his friends, so we're not going to give up on anybody either. We're going to be there and help people."
She said his 6-year-old daughter, Madison, “does better than all of us.”
“She's definitely Daddy's little girl. She's tough, she's pragmatic. She's not afraid to ask questions and when she's upset, she'll let you know,” Passerallo said. “Just looking into her eyes is like looking into Daddy's eyes, so that's a beautiful thing."
Before leaving the event, Passerallo was asked how she’ll cope in the future.
“One step at a time. One hour at a time,” she said. “We'll make it. We'll survive. We'll figure out what to do with this. But we'll never forget Jesse. Ever."