'So glad that this day finally came': Cpl. Williams' mom, friends see Warrenville post office renamed in his honor at last
Someday when his sons are a little older, Sgt. 1st Class Derek Vanbuskirk will return to the Cpl. Jeffrey Allen Williams Post Office in Warrenville and tell his boys about the young man he knew as "Will."
And when he does, Vanbuskirk will remember a fearless, smart Army medic, a 20-year-old who adored his mom but never shied away from a medical mission or a boxing match against bigger men in his platoon.
And that's how Vanbuskirk thought of Williams Saturday during a ceremony to finally christen the post office after the Wheaton Warrenville South High School grad, fulfilling his mother's long-held wish to immortalize her eldest son.
It's been 14 years since Williams was killed by a bomb in Iraq on Sept. 5, 2005. But it wasn't so long ago that the pain of his death overwhelmed Vanbuskirk.
"There were many memories I fought, the memories and reminders of what happened in 2005," Vanbuskirk said. "I struggled with PTSD and tried to find purpose beyond my day-to-day life. In 2010, I finally decided to talk to someone about it.
"Now I'm able to remember Will and focus on the good things that he did, the joy, the laughter he brought us, and the hope of something greater in the future."
Williams had hoped to pursue a career in medicine, inspired by his mother's congenital heart defect and her work as a civilian nurse in military hospitals.
"He took his job as a medic seriously for all the right reasons," Vanbuskirk said.
But William's military family and his high school friends from the Class of 2003 also remembered his charisma. They made the ceremony feel like a long-awaited reunion even though they were joined by dignitaries such as U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and former Gov. Pat Quinn.
Family pictures showed Williams through the years, first as a smiling baby and later as a football player imitating "The People's Eyebrow," the signature facial expression of wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
"Seeing all his friends here, the only person missing is him," said his mom, Sandra Williams Smith, who now lives in Texas. "And when I see his classmates, it's a lot of joy, trying to hold back the tears. Seeing his military friends come out, the parents, the football players, it's just a lot of memories. I'm just so glad that this day finally came."
She never thought she would see the day the post office would bear her son's name. In the weeks after his death, she wanted to have a permanent tribute to her son there, but the proposal eventually fizzled.
Naming the post office after him is a fitting honor because it's the place where he ran errands for her and took the time to befriend the postal workers.
Through letter campaigns and petition drives, Mike Barbier, now a Wheaton city councilman, and his fellow South classmates enlisted the support of lawmakers who passed a bill signed by President Donald Trump last December to rename the post office after Williams.
Barbier knew Williams as a social butterfly in high school. Shortly after graduation, Williams joined the Army, motivated by a call of duty after the Sept. 11 attacks.
He deployed to Iraq in February 2005, assigned to the regimental commander's personal security detachment under then Col. H.R. McMaster, who later became Trump's national security adviser.
"He was a very, very driven individual, and it's no surprise to me that he served on Gen. H.R. McMaster's personal security detachment," said Robert Ortman, who played football with Williams in high school and serves as a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve.
"He was a larger-than-life young man," McMaster himself said via a recording played at the ceremony.
The day or so before he died, Vanbuskirk met with him at the edge of the city of Tal Afar, Iraq, at an aid station to stabilize those injured in battle.
He was his "usual self, happy, forward-thinking, talking about boxing," Vanbuskirk said. He would lose only one other medic, to cancer, in the nearly seven years he served the regiment in the medical troop.
"There was a time when I hoped the Army would name a clinic after Will since he was a medic. That's something we often do. This is a greater honor," Vanbuskirk said. "This is a reminder in his home of the sacrifice he so selflessly made."
He hopes to retire in neighboring Indiana with his family, close enough to bring his boys to the post office.
"And we can talk about Will and what it means to serve others," he said.