For years, Clarence Williams Jr. had wondered exactly how many years of military service the various members of his mother’s and father’s family had accumulated. He knew it had to be a lot because so many of them were veterans. Finally, this year, after making lots of phone calls, he came up with a number that amazed him: 535 years, “and still going strong,” he says.
He put the information on a plaque that he laminated and sent to his 90-year-old father in El Paso, Texas. On it, Clarence has included 47 names in the Williams, Davis, Gilyard, Irvin and Cutno families and the number of years they served their country. The list dates back to World War II.
A “military brat,” Clarence says that military service is “all I’ve known.” Born in New Orleans, he was the oldest of four sons. After graduating from high school, he attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., for a year but “it was not for me,” he says – so, following in the footsteps of his father, Clarence Williams Sr., he joined the U.S. Army in October of 1966.
His dad is a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars who retired in 1969 after 20 years in the Army. In fact, he was stationed in Vietnam when Clarence Jr. was sent first to Korea because close family members can’t serve in the same war zone at the same time.
Clarence Jr. did end up going to Vietnam in July of 1969 for the first of two tours of duty. He served as a combat infantryman and a paratrooper and remembers jumping out of airplanes as “fun, once you get over the fear of jumping.”
He served two combat tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam and two tours in Germany, as well as assignments in Maryland, Oklahoma and Fort Bragg, N.C. His awards include the meritorious service ribbon, good conduct medal, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, jump wings, crewman wings and the combat infantry badge.
After retiring from the Army after 24 years of service, Clarence Jr. taught JROTC at Stanhope High School in Millbrook, then taught at Hayes High School and later at Jackson-Olin High in Birmingham before retiring in 2015.
His greatest satisfaction comes when his former students enter the military. “Right now, I can think of seven kids who are still in the military because of me,” he says. “When they come home to Birmingham, they text me.”
He and his wife, Jeanette Dorsey-Williams, have two daughters and two sons as well as “a host” of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He wouldn’t change anything about his life, he says. “If I could do it again, I’d do it again,” the retired first sergeant says of his time spent in the Army. “I felt it was where I wanted to be and needed to be.”
He appreciates the fact that he got to see places he would never have seen otherwise. “I’ve been around the world two or three times,” he says.
The people included on Clarence Jr.’s plaque are spread all over the country, and most of them are still living. “Out of all those who served, there’s only one female officer and she’s still serving,” he says of Whitney Jackson, “a captain on the promotions list for major” who’s stationed in El Paso.
“Before I did this, I had no idea how much service time we had,” Clarence Jr. says. “I wanted to show people there’s a lot of history in military families.”
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