Saturday, September 08, 2007

Tracy Willis laid to rest

The soldier in the slide show was very young, proudly wearing Army fatigues and the maroon beret of an 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper and sometimes going without a shirt, showing off a trim, athletic body.

There was the snapshot of him in a cap and gown, graduating from O'Connor High School in 2004, a photo of him as a toddler playing and one of him as a baby wearing a birthday cap.

The final image of Spc. Tracy C. Willis formed in the mind's eye of a young but tough man desperately fighting a wave of Iraqi insurgents closing in during the early hours of Aug. 26.

"It reminded me of Vietnam, of many firefights we had in the jungle.... not knowing who was firing or what they were firing at," retired Army Sgt. Maj. Ben Guerrero, 72, of San Antonio, said Friday at Willis' funeral. "I know what was going through his mind — keeping his men and his buddies alive."

The standing-room-only crowd in the chapel alternately laughed and sobbed while watching the photos of Willis, the 31st San Antonian killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

They were proud, but sad. And they knew that Willis, 21, went out the way he lived as a soldier and star defensive back on O'Connor's football team — full tilt, leaving everything on the field. The four GIs, all snipers, clashed with a dozen insurgents. Willis and his spotter were dead when the fight was over, as were the insurgents.

The Rev. Randall Brown said this fight to the death was typical of Willis. His good character could be found in the very letters in his first name — the "T" standing for thoughtful, the "R" for respectful, "A" for accountability, "C" for caring and Christian, and "Y" for yielding — always ready to sacrifice.

"On that morning of Aug. 26, Tracy knew what needed to be done," said Brown, 46, a retired Air Force technical sergeant and pastor of River City Christian Outreach, a Northwest Side church. "That sacrifice, that thoughtfulness, that accountability that belonged to him."

Willis' hero's sendoff was a farewell of song, poetry, pomp and circumstance, with testimonials from Mayor Phil Hardberger and Maj. Gen. Russell Czerw, Fort Sam's commander.

Standing before the casket in the packed Northwest Side funeral home, Czerw gave the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantryman Badge to Darryl and Wilma Willis, Tracy's parents. Hardberger took the dais and thanked Willis and his family for their sacrifice. The words honor, courage and valor "are beautiful," the mayor said, "but are not truly sanctified until they are purchased with blood."

At Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, a horse-drawn caisson brought Willis' casket to a shelter. The family greeted the coffin, which was flanked by more than a dozen Patriot Guard Riders holding U.S. flags.

The sun beat down, flags rippling in the wind on a hot, sunny afternoon as the service ensued. Finally, three rifle volleys were fired, the sharp, startling report causing some in the crowd to jump. Two buglers from the Army Medical Command Band sounded taps.

"We therefore commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," Brown said.

Some in the large crowd that surrounded the shelter tried to hold back their sobs. Others wept openly, letting go. Three volleys rang out in the distance for another funeral as two members of an honor guard folded the flag. Czerw presented it. Wilma Willis clutched the flag and quietly cried.

Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Benito Guerrero, who served in the same 82nd Airborne battalion during Vietnam, read a poem:

"I was that which others did not want to be; I went where others feared to go, and did what others failed to do."

Read the rest at the Express News

Related Link:
Tracy Willis remembered

Related Link:
Tracy C. Willis dies 'of wounds suffered when the enemy attacked his unit during combat operations'