Six years ago, Jill Williams saw a video that changed her life.
“I don’t check Facebook and my email all the time,” said Williams; however, on that day, she stumbled across a video that would see her leaving her Colorado home, hopping on a flight to Maine on a cold December day, and joining a convoy on an 8-day journey to Arlington National Cemetery.
Just what did Jill see in that video that made her spring into action? “There were hundreds of thousands of people at Arlington to greet the convoy, waving their hands and flags, and thousands of volunteers to lay the wreaths. Then it zoomed in on [one] grave. It was my son’s,” she says. The video was produced by Wreaths Across America, an organization dedicated to the coordination of wreath-laying ceremonies across the nation.
Williams’ son, Warrant Officer William Joseph McCotter, had served in the prestigious Third U.S. Infantry Regiment, traditionally known as “The Old Guard.” Duties of the Old Guard include escorting the president, performing ceremonial duties around Washington, and guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington.
“He was recruited for that. He fit the mold perfectly,” she said. “He left the Old Guard to become a warrant officer, and then a Black Hawk pilot.”
At the age of 26, Warrant Officer McCotter passed away in 2010. His remains were interred at Arlington in 2011.
“I came to Maine with just two goals. I wanted to pin my son’s dog tag to a tree [through Wreaths’ remembrance tree program], and I wanted to lay a wreath upon his grave in Arlington.”
She did just that. Her journey didn’t begin until 5 years and one pandemic later, but finally, this year, she got on a plane for the first leg of her journey. From the moment she landed in Bangor, she was greeted by a couple from Wreaths Across America who were there to ensure she had everything she needed.
On her journey, Williams found herself stopping every hundred miles or so along the eastern seaboard for ceremonies of remembrance. She broke bread with people from all walks of life including bikers, truckers, and police officers. Along the way, she found something special and became a part of this exclusive club of travelers on a mission to spread a little extra warmth and kindness through the holiday season.
From the first stop in Columbia Falls, Williams was in awe.
“I had no idea of the sheer magnitude” she said of the Wreaths operation.
She describes her treatment she received along the way as almost overwhelming.
“My son laid down his life for his country. [But they] treated us like royalty. It was as if we had served. I’ve always been patriotic, but I’ve never been political. In every city, there were kids waving flags, greeting us. They shut down the New Jersey Turnpike for us. There were times I felt guilty. It was he who served. He was a member of The Old Guard.”
Williams is planning to retire from her role as an account executive for a Fortune 500 company soon with plans to contribute more time to honoring her son’s memory.
“This will open up several more opportunities for me to participate in local veterans’ events,” she said, “more Blue Star Mothers activities, and Gold Star Mothers projects. All in the hope that these efforts will honor my son Billy, and others that have fought for our freedom. May they never be forgotten.”