The Iraq war continues to hit home. Hard.
The region's fifth and latest fatality -- among 336 total U.S. deaths -- occurred Friday when 46-year-old Spc. Michael L. Williams of Forman Street was killed by a roadside bomb near Baghdad.
His brick and siding home near Schiller Park is right around the corner from that of Marine Pfc. Tomorio Burkett, who was killed by Iraqi forces in March.
Williams was also the second member of the Army National Guard's 105th Military Police Company, deployed out of the Masten Avenue Armory, to die. Sgt. Heath A. McMillin of Canandaigua was killed July 27.
Roland Williams, Michael's youngest brother, has taken note of the disproportionate number of Western New Yorkers who have died in Iraq, and wonders why.
"Who would ever have thought it would hit this close to home?" said Williams.
Williams paid his respects to his brother's family Saturday at their home, deeply saddened by the loss of someone he considered a role model and "best friend." He said he also mourned for the other soldiers' families who have had to suffer the death of a loved one.
"My brother is an older gentleman, and he chose to be there. These younger kids -- I can just imagine what their families are going through," he said.
Michael Williams, however, was where he felt he needed to be.
Born in Buffalo, he grew up in Lackawanna and starred on the Lackawanna High School basketball team despite being 5-foot-8. He also lived in Depew for a time with a grandmother who helped raise him.
After graduation, the 18-year-old Williams enlisted in the Army. Later, he would serve a second stint in the Army Reserves at the time of the Persian Gulf War, including a deployment in Kuwait.
Williams worked for 14 years as a corrections officer for the state Department of Correctional Services, dividing his time between the Wyoming Correctional Facility in Genesee County and Gowanda Correctional Facility in Gowanda.
Several years ago, he transferred to a job as an investigator in the sex crimes unit.
Faith played an important role in his life. As a member of Elim Christian Fellowship, Williams was an active congregant, did ministry work and blended his alto with the choir. At home, he listened to gospel music.
Movies were his escape
Williams enjoyed motorcycles and was road captain of the Christian Motorcycle Association.
His basement featured a large projection screen where he watched movies and enjoyed boxing matches and the Buffalo Bills.
Younger brother Roland Williams recalled a photograph sent by his older brother featuring a sign he and other soldiers had made, depicting a Buffalo Bills logo plunked into the Baghdad sand.
Movies, however, were Williams' greatest escape.
"He was a movie fanatic. He liked action (movies) and gangster movies -- Al Pacino," said 21-year-old LaToya Williams, the youngest of Williams' four daughters -- three with his first wife of 18 years, Darlene Williams, and one with his second wife of nearly eight years, Carolyn.
"That was time to himself. He liked to sit back and watch his movies," LaToya Williams said.
Michael Williams and his family were glued to that screen for hours a little more than two years ago. The date was Sept. 11, 2001. It was his birthday.
Barbara Leon, a deputy inspector general for the Department of Corrections and Williams' boss, remembers his speaking of his need to re-enlist. He believed the Bush administration's suggestion that Iraq was a terrorist threat connected to the terrible tragedies of that day.
"When Sept. 11 happened, he could not sit with that pain, knowing he was a soldier and not doing something to help. That's why he enlisted -- because he needed to," said Leon.
Friends and family say that Williams' letters -- he was an avid letter writer -- revealed some doubts about what the United States was accomplishing in Iraq.
"I think he had a little regret about signing up to go back in after he went back there and saw things," said friend and co-worker Doris Cross. "He told me how it was kind of depressing over there."
Close friends John and Deidre Carswell also said while Williams continued to believe his country was doing the right thing in occupying Iraq, he was disturbed by what he saw.
"He said where he was was uncontrollable, that there was a lot of senseless killing and total chaos. You never knew who your enemy was," said Deidre Carswell.
"He wrote us that they were going to have reinforcements and he was going to be moved soon to a safer zone. We were hoping he would be coming home this month."
Sonia Williams said she recalled in her father's first letter to her that "he was fighting a war for his country, and also a war for the Lord."
"He didn't know if he'd be returning home to us," Williams said, "but he kept his faith in God, and if anything happened to him, he knew he'd have a place in heaven, so not to weep or worry for him."
Inside the neatly manicured Williams home Saturday, friends and family found it hard to follow those words. They talked about how much he had meant to them -- as a loving father and husband, a giving friend and someone gifted with the ability to light up a room yet still make each person feel special.
"We didn't just lose a soldier, I didn't just lose an employee, and they didn't just lose a family member or friend," said Leon. "He was an incredible person that radiated a love of life, and it's hard to lose that kind of presence."
'He gave his heart'
John Carswell remembered the loving concern Williams had showed him as he faced a life-threatening condition.
"I had an episode of an aneurysm, and Michael was there for my support. They told me I wouldn't live, and Michael gave me the courage. He's writing me and he's in harm's way, and he's concerned about me getting better," said Carswell.
"He would do anything he could if you needed him."
"He gave his heart to people," added friend Lonnie Willis, who said Williams had been a "spiritual uncle" to him.
Roland Williams said he never told his brother of his mixed feelings about his going to Iraq -- nor would his brother have wanted to hear it. As much as he admires his brother for following his convictions, Williams said he can't help thinking his death was senseless.
"It's just unfortunate that anybody had to die for this cause. I think it should have ended a while ago and we should have had the troops out of there," Williams said.
Bernita Herring said she has also had enough of people from the neighborhood dying in Iraq. She lives a few doors down from Williams, and her children used to play with Burkett, whom she recalled fondly as a "happy-go-lucky kid."
She wonders how many more from the area will die in Iraq.
"I really feel bad. This (war is) unnecessary," said Herring. "I feel they should bring our people from out of there. There's only so much we can do. The people of the United States are always the ones on the losing end."