Home for the holidays

Former Chicoan describes his overseas military service

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Troy Williams (right) with an unidentified Afghan soldier at a base in eastern Afghanistan.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Troy Williams (right) with an unidentified Afghan soldier at a base in eastern Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of Troy Williams

On Thursday, Dec. 13, Troy Williams came “home” to Chico for the holidays during a month-long leave from his job as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army. Two months ago he finished up an eight-month tour in Afghanistan. Before that he served a year in Korea, six months in Haiti, and 15 months in Iraq.

Chico is not officially his home, but he lived here for about eight years, and on Dec. 18 he visited the News & Review to recall his time in Chico, his military experiences and his optimism for both Iraq and Afghanistan as the United States extracts its military presence. He reports back to Fort Bliss in El Paso on Jan. 2.

Williams came here from Southern California in 1991 to attend Chico State. While taking classes he also worked at two popular downtown bars—Duffy’s and LaSalles—and he occasionally stood in with the band The Mother Hips playing the harmonica. While living in Chico the jovial Williams made many friends who’ve welcomed him back with good cheer.

Williams, 41, was born in Pomona and moved to Upland, where he spent the majority of his life. His father was a defense contractor at Rockwell International, where he designed guided systems for nuclear weapons. His mom was a social worker. Williams said he grew up in a fairly affluent neighborhood in Upland and that his father told him that, for a black family, “money is the best bleach” in getting accepted by the larger white community.

He came to Chico in 1991 and stayed until March 1, 1998. He said he came close to earning a degree, but in the end did not.

“I took a semester off,” he said. “I was bar-backing at LaSalles and working the door at Duffy’s. My friends kept telling me that if I took a semester off I wouldn’t graduate. I should have listened.”

He began working at a local group home with plans to return to school. Instead, he moved back to Southern California to live with his dad and started working for the L.A. County Office of Education.

“I worked there for years with kids who were severely behaviorally and emotionally handicapped,” he said. “I was also working at a group home, and I eventually realized I couldn’t advance any further. I was staying at my dad’s house, and I watched an infomercial on TV. I don’t remember what they were selling, but I remember a guy saying, ‘Life is about options. If you don’t have options, you need to create them.’ Then a few minutes later a National Guard commercial came on, and I decided I was going to join.”

Williams said a friend talked him into joining the Army instead, which he did on Nov. 14, 2006. “I called a recruiter and joined,” he said. “It was an easy sell.”

He was sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana for his basic training and soon thereafter headed to Iraq.

“I felt completely unprepared,” he said. “I’m 36 years old and the oldest guy in my platoon besides my platoon sergeant, and I think he might have been a month older than me. I just felt completely unprepared and overwhelmed, and I thought, ‘This is the worst mistake.’ You have guys who are 20, 21 years old who’ve had multiple deployments and they are in charge of me. I recognized that they had more combat experience and more combat knowledge, but still…”

He served in Iraq as a CROWS gunner, which means Common Remotely Operated Weapons System.

Troy Williams in Chico

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“The gunner sits inside the vehicle, and the weapons system is incredibly accurate,” he said. “I probably went on 50 missions where I was a gunner. The heat and the gear and my not being in shape were sometimes overwhelming.”

Williams said he had little contact with the Iraqi people.

“The Shiites welcomed us, of course, because of the Sunnis and Saddam and the Baath Party,” he said. “The Sunnis just had a real strong distaste for us.” He spent two and a half months working at a military prison—duty he’s not allowed to discuss—where he had contact with Iraqi soldiers and police, “but the people on the ground not much.”

After 15 months he came back to Louisiana before he was deployed to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that killed tens of thousands and displaced millions more.

“I’ve never seen more death and destruction in my life,” he said. “They were loading bodies up and putting them in back of Dumpsters and driving them to the edge of town and dumping them out. It was outrageous.

“I remember the Canadians, the Mexicans, the Israelis, the Jordanians, the English, the Brazilians, and even Sean Penn,” he said. “We had a platoon guarding his compound. That mission is the mission I am most proud of. It was a six-month mission. I come back to Louisiana, and two weeks later they send me to Korea for a year.”

Williams said he enjoyed his time in Korea, that the people were welcoming, especially if you learned or at least tried to learn their language. He wanted to stay longer but was denied.

In Afghanistan, there was more than just Taliban to fear, he said.

“There are other little splinter groups and the insider threat of Afghan soldiers turning against us,” he said. “And then there was July 8.”

On that day, six American soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb exploded as their truck drove past.

“It was catastrophic,” Williams said. “That’s where I saw my guys come together more. It was just a tragedy. It was surreal because we were sending these guys back home early. One of our guys was getting married because he’d just become the father of a baby. But he didn’t make it.”

He said the locals are afraid of talking with American soldiers, fearing the Taliban will retaliate against them.

“I got to spend a lot of time interacting with both civilians and Afghan military,” he said. “Sometimes you’d encounter people, and they were hostile or upset or just fearful. But many of them showed a great deal of courtesy and kindness.”

He said he thinks things will work out after the United States pulls out.

“The future? I was a little skeptical until I ran a couple missions with this colonel. He had such a belief in these people that they have the training and resources to be successful. So that affected me. I’m hopeful. I’m really hopeful.”