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Saying goodbye to a 'soldier's soldier,' as Sgt. 'Billy' Wilson is laid to rest

Army Staff Sgt. William R. "Billy" Wilson III, who hailed from Getzville but lost his life thousands of miles away in Afghanistan last week, was laid to rest Friday.

With approximately 1,000 mourners at his funeral service to say goodbye, the 27-year-old war hero's devotion to others was described as far outweighing any concern he may have had for his personal safety.

That passion to protect his fellow citizens was what guided him to Afghanistan, speaker after speaker declared.

"Billy Wilson was a soldier's soldier, a true American hero. Billy did what he did so that others could continue to live in a country that is free -- free from fear, free from pain and free from suffering," said Maj. Gen. Kurt J. Stein, who moments later posthumously awarded Wilson the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Stein, in presenting the medals to the sergeant's parents, William R. Jr. and Kimberly, who sat only feet away from their son's flag-draped coffin, thanked them for Wilson's ultimate sacrifice "on behalf of a grateful nation."

And while grief filled the massive sanctuary at The Chapel at CrossPoint in Getzville, the major general said he wanted mourners to know that on the other side of the world, Wilson's comrades in Afghanistan were hurting just as much.

Earlier Friday morning, Stein said, he had spoken on the phone with Lt. Col. CurtTaylor, the 172nd Battalion's commander, who said Wilson stood out as one of the two top squad leaders in his command of more than 600 soldiers.

Quoting Taylor, Stein said, " 'Billy was a man who lived his life for others. Rarely does one man have such a profound and lasting impact on so many people. He was absolutely selfless, committed to his family, his squad and his country.' "

Stein said that during a conversation he had Thursday, Wilson's company commander said: ,

"Without question, he was my best, most skilled and talented squad leader. That's who Billy was -- selfless, dedicated and always putting his heart and soul into his soldiers."

It was impossible for Wilson's many battle buddies to attend the service, but the military brass in Afghanistan made sure his closest friend, or "best buddy," as Stein called him, was present.

Stein asked Staff Sgt. Christopher Ashworth to stand and, for a moment, all eyes were upon him as the mourners paid tribute to him with a round of applause.

Throughout the 90-minute service, it became clear that friendship and a burning desire to help others were Wilson's hallmarks.

Wilson's lifelong friend, Richard Capote, whom he nicknamed "Pico De Gallo" (Wilson had nicknames for everyone, including his parents), recalled how Wilson had driven him back to college in Michigan when he was desperate for a ride.

"His truck couldn't go above 55 mph or else the entire cab would shake uncontrollably. He didn't care. It would take us seven hours and he would have to make that same seven-hour trip alone on the way back. I needed help and a way back to school and Billy never hesitated," Capote said.

Capote thanked "old man" and "Kiwi" or "Kim Ma Dukes" -- Wilson's mom and dad -- for flinging open their home to Billy's friends, making it a warm and inviting place.

Capote also spoke of Wilson's admiration and great love for Jess, his fiancee, and his brothers, Jeremy, known as "JR," and Wesley, "Dub-Dub."

Josh Olson, another longtime friend, recalled how they would sneak out of Wilson's bedroom through a window and go riding their bicycles until the "old man" caught on to their nocturnal adventures.

Staff Sgt. William R. "Billy" Wilson III, 27, who was killed March 26, 2012, in Afghanistan.

When Wilson was old enough to drive, he purchased a wreck of a car, dubbed the "Silver Bullet," Olson recalled, and graciously allowed him to drive it, even though he was not old enough.

"We loved anything that we could drive, so it comes as no surprise that Billy found his way into the Army driving tanks," said Olson, whom Wilson had nicknamed "Ony."

Wilson also was a major do-it-yourselfer, the friend said.

Growing up taking chances to have fun, Olson said, Wilson sometimes ended up in a cast with a broken limb. But the casts didn't stay on very long.

"Why bother doctors with something that could be done with tools around the house," Olson said, recalling how Wilson removed his own casts when he felt his limbs were mended.

On Wilson's devotion to friends, T.J. Hirsch recalled how when his sister, Jacquie, was dying from leukemia, Wilson used up all his military leave to fly home and be at her side in 2008.

"Right now they are two angels looking down on us and saying, 'We're fine, heaven is great.' "

And just the other day, Hirsch said, he stopped by the Wilson house and wound up trying on one of his friend's shoes.

"It did not fit. I could never fill Billy's shoes. Within seven years, he lead his squad on 200 patrols and missions. I marvel at his dedication to protect all of us," Hirsch said, promising mourners that in the near future a memorial to Wilson would be established.

The fact that Wilson's funeral fell on Good Friday was not lost on Rev. Richard R. George, pastor of The Chapel at CrossPoint and a Vietnam War veteran.

"The fact is that without the cross, there'd be no place to see Billy again ," said George, pointing out that someone like Billy, willing to put it all on the line for others, was extraordinary.

"A life like Billy Wilson's just didn't happen. So as we remember him, we thank his parents who raised him and his brothers who stood alongside him and learned from him," George said. "Billy knew the value of God, country and family, something people these days sometimes don't get in that order."

Following the service, a funeral procession of stretch limousines, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles and hundreds of cars headed to Elmlawn Cemetery in the Town of Tonawanda for burial with full military honors.

The sergeant's father told The Buffalo News that though he felt "shellshocked" by the loss, he found comfort in knowing his son would be laid to rest beside another soldier in the Wilson family.

When the father had called the cemetery, he had hoped to find a plot somewhere near his own father, a military veteran.

At first, the cemetery worker said there weren't any, but suddenly noticed one available right beside the grandfather.

It was more than the family could hope for.

"My son will be buried beside my father, Sgt. William R. Wilson. I want you to know that."

Duly noted -- two Sgt. Wilsons at rest together.