Local Military News

5 million people saw this Marine’s photobomb at Parris Island. Here’s the backstory

Jevonna Williams was trying to be, in her words, “incognito.”

Unbeknownst to her boyfriend, she’d made the trip to Parris Island to surprise him at his Nov. 30 boot-camp graduation.

Jamil Brown had been promoted to private first-class by the time he graduated that day with his comrades in Platoon 1094. After the ceremony, he posed for pictures on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island’s parade deck, which was awash in friends, family and newly minted Marines in spiffy dress uniforms.

Williams watched from a distance until she saw the signal, a homemade paper sign his family held high in the air.

In a burnt-orange dress, she moved in behind him and readied for her now famous “photobomb.”

Maybe you’ve seen the picture and accompanying video online. Brown’s reaction was, well, something Hollywood would have a hard time scripting. A relative showed him the photo on a smartphone. He glanced at it, nodded and smiled, as if saying, “Yeah, that’s nice.” Then he looked closer — and spotted Williams in the background. His jaw dropped. The couple hugged. His white dress cap fell to the ground.

Williams, a Marine Corps sergeant stationed in Quantico, Va., had pulled off the ultimate covert operation ... with some help from family and the most innocent of fibs.

She tweeted a video of the shock-to-tears moment that, as of Tuesday morning, had been viewed almost five million times.

“That was not expected,” Williams told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette on Monday evening.

“It’s just something that is heartwarming, and it’s nice to share on Twitter, and I did,” she continued. “And my notifications are through the roof.”

But as genuine as the moment is, its backstory is just as precious. And in recent days, the couple has found yet another reason to celebrate.

Before he went to boot camp, Williams told Brown she wouldn’t be able to attend graduation.

That was true: she was scheduled to start training as a Marine Corps recruiter in the fall, out in California, which would make it impossible for her to travel back east.

Brown, a 26-year-old Manassas, Va., native, had already shipped to Parris Island when Williams, ahead of her training, took a required physical fitness test. She passed but noticed “sharp pains” in her foot a week later. The injury sidelined her, delaying her move to California.

Brown, busy on the island, had no idea; Williams conspired with his family to keep it that way.

She kept the secret for almost two months.

“She didn’t mention the California thing too much (in her letters to me),” Brown said.

“I tried not to fib too much about it, unless he asked or I had to,” Williams said.

The pair had been dating more than three years, officially becoming a couple during Williams’ first trip home to Virginia from Okinawa, Japan, where she was then stationed.

Jevonna Williams and Jamil Brown pose for picture in February 2016, in Tokyo, Japan. Submitted Courtesy of Jevonna Williams

Williams — the daughter and granddaughter of Marines — would later introduce Brown to his recruiter.

“He was able to talk with my dad,” Williams said of Brown’s decision to enlist. “And of course, with him being so close to me, he was able to see me operate in the Marine Corps, and what the Marine Corps has done for me.”

Williams, 24, of Stafford, Va., graduated from Parris Island herself in 2014. She knew how special the ceremony was and how much her surprise visit would mean.

Just before graduation, Brown was able to make his first phone call in months — of course it was to Williams. As hard as it was, she kept up the ruse. He still thought she was out West.

Days later, though, he would have a surprise for Williams.

After her viral photobomb, the pair returned to Virginia, where Brown had 10 days of leave before shipping to North Carolina for infantry training.

They were staying at his parents’ house. Williams was asleep when he flipped on the lights and startled her.

Jevonna Williams and Jamil Brown pose for a picture in 2018. Submitted Courtesy of Jevonna Williams

“I woke her up in the middle of the night, with the light shining on it,” he said of the engagement ring he offered her. “And I was there, down on one knee.”

There are no tweets or videos of that moment, but Williams later shared a picture of the ring.

It shines handsomely and sparkles brilliantly, and it will surely pair well with any outfit, camouflage or otherwise.

“Pretty much she didn’t have a clue,” Brown said.

“I kept her on her toes the whole time, kept her guessing.”

Wade Livingston covers the Lowcountry’s “DNA” — the people, places and vibes that make our home what it is — the military, stories of general interest and all things beautifully, humanly quirky. The New York Times, Esquire and Harvard’s Nieman Storyboard have cited his reporting and storytelling.