Gold Star mother drives fallen son's truck from California to Fort Benning

Keith Michael Williams

By CHUCK WILLIAMS | Columbus Ledger-Enquirer | Published: October 16, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — When the Global War Terrorism memorial is dedicated Monday morning in a ceremony at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, Keith Michael Williams is one of the 6,915 names on the granite markers.

But there will be another tribute to Williams, and it will be in the parking lot.

Killed in July 2014 by an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Afghanistan, Williams’ mother, Debbie Tuttle has kept her son’s memory alive through one of his prized possessions, his first and only vehicle, a 2004 Nissan Titan pickup truck.

The truck is painted to honor veterans, those serving today and those like Williams who paid the ultimate price. And Tuttle made sure it was in Columbus for the dedication, driving it cross country from her home in Visalia, Calif., to Fort Benning, where her son graduated from basic training in December 2013.

More than 250 family members of fallen soldiers are expected to among the 3,000 people at the National Infantry Museum on Monday as the $2 million memorial that honors all soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines killed in the ongoing war that was the United States’ response to the attack of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 is dedicated.

Today’s 11 a.m. ceremony is important enough for Tuttle drive a 13-year-old truck across the country by herself.

“I am speaking as a mom — because that’s what I am, a mom — a mom’s worst fear is that your child is going to be forgotten and their sacrifice is going to be forgotten,” she said Sunday night just before she spoke to more than 250 people at a fundraising dinner for the memorial. “A lot of the things I do are around remembering him and keeping his memory alive in fun ways — that’s why I did the truck.”

The survivors are called Gold Star families, and Tuttle was not the only one to speak Sunday night. Nick Loudon, a former Army officer, told the story of his brother, 2nd Lt. Christopher Loudon, who was killed in October 2006 by an IED in Iraq. Nick had to identify his brother and escort his body home.

Nick Loudon said he was glad to see he spoke before Tuttle in the program’s lineup.

“Originally, one of our Gold Star mothers was supposed to speak before me, and I really did not want to speak after a Gold Star mother,” Loudon said. “Let me begin by saying, that no one is more profoundly changed by the loss of an American service member than their mother.”

The truck was purchased on Dec. 31, 2013 in California shortly after Williams graduated from basic training, but before he reported to his unit in the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colo.

Williams and his mom spent most of that New Year’s Eve shopping for that truck.

“I wanted him to have wheels at Fort Carson,” she said.

The truck also was an important part of watching the boy she had raised become a soldier and a man. And a key step in the journey happened at Fort Benning, she said.

Williams was a “cool kid,” a California surfer dude who liked to skate and snowboard, but a funny thing happened to him in the fall of 2013 when he reported to Fort Benning and graduated on the parade field that is a grenade’s throw from the new memorial.

“This place is very special to me,” she said of Fort Benning. “My son walked off that parade field over there ...”

Tuttle then looked at the field and paused for about 10 seconds before finishing her thought.

“He came to Fort Benning a boy and he marched off that field a proud U.S. Infantryman,” she said. “It was the proudest day of his life. We were just so proud of him.”

He was killed less than seven months later.

The IED that killed Williams also took the life of Staff Sgt. Benjamin Prange of Hickman, Neb. One of the stops Tuttle made on her trip to Georgia was at Prange’s gravesite in Lincoln, Neb.

“I just felt like Keith would want me to go see him,” Tuttle said. “I was surprised by the emotions. ... They died together.”

The mother and son bonded through music, and as she drove the truck to Columbus, she listened to songs and sang along the way.

“That is my therapy,” Tuttle said. “I feel most connected to him when I am listening to his music.”

©2017 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.)
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