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Brother of 9/11 victim from Jacksonville: National unity is best tribute on 20th anniversary

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Roy Williams

Roy Williams visits the memorial to his brother Dwayne in his hometown of Jacksonville. (Contributed photo)

On Sept. 11, 2001, Maj. Dwayne Williams was killed when terrorists flew a plane into the Pentagon, where he was working.

This week, numerous ceremonies were planned to honor Williams and countless events are scheduled around the country to remember the nearly 3,000 Americans who lost their lives in New York’s twin towers, the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and on a crashed plane in Pennsylvania.

But Roy Williams, Dwayne’s brother, says national unity is the best tribute we can pay as a country to those who died.

“It’s amazing how our nation has changed,” said Roy Williams of Birmingham. “In the aftermath of 9/11, we saw unprecedented unity in the midst of our deepest sorrow. Republicans and Democrats put aside their political differences. We weren’t red states and blue states. We were the United States. People weren’t thinking about color. It wasn’t Black, white and Latino. It was red, white and blue as we all wrapped ourselves in the colors of the American flag. We put aside differences, realizing that our nation was under attack and we needed to rally together. Twenty years later, it’s as if we forgot that lesson that we learned on 9/11.”

Roy pointed out that Americans today are divided over race after the George Floyd tragedy; Democrats and Republicans are more divided than ever; the country just came through a bitter election that was contested; and we’re divided over whether to get the COVID vaccine and whether to wear a mask.

“As we honor the legacy of those who died on 9/11, the 3,000 people who died that day, including my brother, if we can, for one moment, for one weekend, unite,” Roy said. “Don’t be divided over race and politics and COVID-19. Let’s honor their memories by putting aside this divisiveness and uniting as one nation under God.”

‘That fateful Tuesday’

Even though it’s been 20 years, Roy vividly remembers his last conversation with his brother. It was on Saturday, Sept. 8, three days before the attacks.

“It was a really happy occasion,” he said. “I called to let him know, ‘Hey, man, my wife and I found out this new baby is gonna be a boy.’ My wife and I suffered infertility for seven years; then we had Naja, our daughter. He had a son and a daughter, so when we were having this second child, he was so excited because he knew how much I (also) wanted a son.”

Roy remembers that fateful Tuesday starting out as a beautiful sunny day. “I had just gotten my daughter dressed for day care. She was 2 at the time. The Today Show was on and they showed live images of a plane hitting the first World Trade Center tower. And I was like, ‘Aw, man, that’s such a horrible accident.’ Minutes later the second tower was hit, and we knew it was not an accident; it was an act of terror. I remember telling my wife, ‘Oh, boy, Dwayne’s about to go to war again.’”

Army Maj. Dwayne Williams had served in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Another brother, Kim Williams, was an Army sergeant in the Persian Gulf War, and Roy’s twin brother, Troy, was in the Air Force. “So I was afraid that all three of my brothers would have to put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms,” Roy said.

At the time, Roy was working as a reporter at The Birmingham News, and everyone at the newspaper was watching what was going on in New York. Roy got a call from his mother, Pearl Williams, who said the Pentagon had been struck and that she was worried about Dwayne. “I said, no, Mom. Dwayne’s fine. That’s New York. Dwayne’s probably getting ready to prepare to go to war.”

When he hung up with his mom, Roy said he turned back to the television and saw the first images of the Pentagon on fire.

“And my heart sank,” he said. “I tried to call Dwayne’s cell. No answer. Tried to call his office. No answer. Tried to call his wife. No answer. All the phones were busy.”

Later that evening, Roy reached the home of Dwayne’s wife, Tammy, and was told that Dwayne was among the missing and to please pray.

“Ten agonizing days later we found out that Dwayne was among the missing whose body had been identified,” Roy said. “I was at my mother’s house when we found out that he was dead. We got the knock on the door. That agonizing scream that my mother gave is forever etched in my mind. It still gives me chills.”

‘A great guy’

Dwayne was 40 when he died. He was an 18-year Army veteran who had just been assigned to the Pentagon three months before 9/11. He was the oldest of four sons, three of whom served in the military. Roy’s identical twin, Troy, was in the Air Force (he retired after 22 years as an Air Force Technical Sergeant and now lives in Belgium). Kim, who was 38 when Dwayne died, spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, retiring a year after 9/11 as an Army Sergeant 1st Class. He now lives in Turkey.

Roy said Dwayne was a star athlete in basketball and softball, and was a standout receiver on the football field atJacksonville High and then at theUniversity of North Alabama. He served as the best man at Roy’s wedding, helping keep him calm.

“So, I knew he was a great guy, but I didn’t realize until after he died the impact he had made across the world,” Roy said. “People talked about how he was a hero on the battlefield. Dwayne led a regiment in the Persian Gulf War. He won a medal for valor for leading his troops. He won a softball championship for his softball team in the Army.”

On the day of the Pentagon attack, it was Dwayne’s turn for a break, but he let a co-worker go in his place. “She feels guilty because he died and she is alive because he made that decision to let her go on break,” Roy said. “He was a leader on the battlefield, on the sports field, as well as in life.”

Pearl Williams raised funds for a monument in Dwayne’s honor in their hometown, Jacksonville. Two scholarships in his name allow dozens of college kids to get scholarships up to $3,000. He has two buildings named in his honor — one at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and one in Fort Jackson, S.C. He won the Purple Heart, the Medal of Valor, dozens of awards. UNA retired his number. A bench was placed at the Pentagon memorial in his honor. Roy and Pearl have each written a book in his honor, and his brother Kim recorded a song that he wrote in memory of Dwayne.

“Whenever I hear that song, I tear up,” Roy said. “The song is so reflective of the legacy that my brother left. I don’t even play it at home anymore because my wife does not like to see me go through what I go through when I hear that song.”

Dwayne’s legacy, Roy said, “is reflected through the many lives he touched — not only in life, but in death.”

That legacy starts with the family that has tried to move on without him the last 20 years. His wife, Tammy, raised their two children — Kelsie, now 33, who is married with a daughter of her own; and Shelby, now 37, who has three children, the youngest named Dwayne.

“Dwayne didn’t get the luxury of what we fathers want, to be able to walk his daughter down the aisle. He wasn’t there when his grandson who’s named after him was born,” Roy said. “That’s one of the tragedies of 9/11. As tough as it’s been on us, I was not with Dwayne every day like his wife and children. They haven’t done any interviews over the past 20 years, except for a ‘60 Minutes’ interview on the first anniversary. It’s been very tough. It’s tough on me, but far tougher on them.”

‘The streak will end’

Honors for Dwayne this week include tributes by UNA on Saturday, by Jacksonville High School before its homecoming game Friday night, and a 9/11 panel discussion at Jacksonville State University from 11 to 12:30 Thursday. Also, because Dwayne is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, every year since 2003 Pearl Williams has headed a memorial ceremony for her son at Jacksonville City Cemetery so family and friends can pay their respects locally.

That streak will end for Pearl this year after the 79-year-old recently contracted COVID-19 and won’t be able to attend this year’s ceremony, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday. She’s doing better, but Roy will take the lead this year in representing the family.

“It’s going to be difficult because she’s been there every year,” he said. “I feel a little more weight on my shoulders because she’s not there. My message is going to be: If you want to honor the heroes of 9/11, can we put aside political bickering; can we put aside racial differences; can we put aside division about COVID-19 and the vaccine, and for one moment, just unite.”

Another issue that has the country divided is President Joe Biden’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan last month, 20 years after it started. Less than a week after troops were pulled out of Afghanistan, the country fell to control of the Taliban, the same terrorist group American soldiers fought for two decades. Roy was clear about where he stands personally.

“When we lost our 13 heroes in that attack (during the withdrawal from Afghanistan), my heart sank. I know what those families are going through,” he said. “I personally support the decision to pull out. When people in Afghanistan and their military are not willing to fight for themselves, why should we put our lives on the line to fight for them? We should have pulled out 10 years ago when Bin Laden was killed.”

‘Reclaiming your soul’

Roy said revisiting and reliving 9/11 every year for the past 20 years has taught him not to take any day for granted. He and his wife will celebrate their 30th anniversary on Sept 14.

“I haven’t really celebrated our anniversary like we should because I go into a dark place around the week of 9/11,” he said. “So, my message is: If you have a loved one, give them a hug. If you’re arguing, put those differences aside. Don’t ever go to bed angry with each other because tomorrow is not promised.”

Roy said he’s going to try to start taking his own advice.

“I think this is the last year I’ll do a lot of interviews for 9/11 because I’ve got to heal myself,” he said, referencing a recent sermon by his pastor titled Reclaiming Your Soul. “When you’re stuck in tragedy, you’ve got to take steps to get out of it. I’ve got to learn that nothing I say or do will bring my brother back. I’ve got to reclaim my soul. I’ve got to take my own advice and move on.”

Roy asked everyone to please keep Dwayne’s wife and family, his mother, Pearl, and his two brothers in their thoughts and prayers.

“This is always a tough time for us, but I’m trying to focus on the life he lived instead of the life he gave,” he said. “Never forget the heroes of 9/11, and let’s honor the legacy of the heroes of 9/11 by uniting as one nation under God. Proudly wave those flags again, and let your loved ones know how much you appreciate them while they’re here on earth, instead of after they’ve gone on to glory.”

Anthony Cook is former editor of The Anniston Star. He works as a communications specialist for Alabama Power Company.