Reserve officer brings personal 'thank you' from a world away

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comDecember 27, 2011 

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U.S. Army Capt. Bill Williams of Utah drove his 2003 Chevy Blazer into Beaufort County twice this month to personally say "thank you" to people who sent goodies to his troops sweeping roadsides for explosives in Afghanistan.

It's part of a 13,000-mile "Grati-Tour" that puts the 53-year-old reservist face-to-face with America. He's thanking 75 people or organizations that sent boxes to his troops on duty in the Kunar Province. They sent 400 boxes in eight months, a reversal of the nation's angst and distrust he witnessed as a child during the Vietnam War.

"I hold mankind in high regard," Williams said Tuesday from Florida, where he is seeing a granddaughter for the first time.

Williams visited Jeanette Cram on Hilton Head Island -- the "Cookie Lady" who founded Treats The Troops in 1990. With volunteers called "crumbs," Cram's group has made and shipped 2.8 million cookies to troops overseas.

He backtracked to make a second trip to the county to meet Jennifer Iddins at Gilligan's Seafood Restaurant in Beaufort. She coordinates the Military Overseas Package Project and the Stand Alone Marines project. She sees that troops without family present at graduation ceremonies at U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, or returning from deployment to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, receive a gift bag filled by volunteers.

Williams also thanked Heather Harris of Beaufort, who sent boxes to his troops with the U.S. Army 744th Engineering Company based in Ogden, Utah. Williams was executive officer with the company, which worked one of the most dangerous roads in Afghanistan. They got home with everyone except 20-year-old Cpl. Raphael Arruda, who was killed when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device.

Williams sent a thank-you card to everyone who sent his troops goods. He also sent them a large piece of the semi-precious blue stone, lapis, mined in Afghanistan since antiquity.

Now he tracks them down for a personal visit.

"What I find is that these people have two things in common that I share," Williams said. "We both have gratitude. We say 'thank you.' And we have generosity. These two feelings get together and it all bubbles up, and I find myself sitting across the table from a best friend I've never met before. You'd figure we went to grade school together."

He has found some of them plowing through setbacks -- back surgery, fire in the VFW Post -- to continue giving to the troops.

Cram gets lots of letters and emails from soldiers, but not personal visits.

"They're lonesome and they don't have this little bit of home," she said. "I know how much the cookies mean, especially meeting Bill now. To have this big bear of a man just come sit down and visit with you is special."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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