SAN ANTONIO - Tim Williams never spent much time in graveyards while he was in the military.
Now retired from the U.S. Army, the 57-year-old spends almost every day inside Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, overseeing 98,000 perfectly aligned headstones, buzzing lawn mowers and tiny flags and bouquets of flowers that make up the country’s seventh-busiest national cemetery.
But it’s not just landscaping, just as Fort Sam is not just another cemetery. At the heart of his daily labors, Williams serves his fellow soldiers and their families, honoring those who have fought and died for their country. And when they make their final return to San Antonio, Williams makes sure they get the resting place they deserve.
“It’s no different if I buried a loved one here,” Williams said. “This is a very emotional time for the families, and that only encourages me to work even harder.”
Making the mission
“Three Alpha, we got a mainline blow,” is not an unfamiliar message heard over the radio. They’re signaling Williams, the facility and grounds maintenance work leader, and it’s a good thing he always keeps a cutoff tee on his work buggy.
If the break is bad enough, Williams said he can see the 60-foot water spout shooting up into the sky from his office, nearly a half mile away on the east side of the cemetery. It’s one of the largest -- if not the largest -- irrigation systems in South Texas.
Williams takes a lot of pride in being able to pinpoint the problem and resolve it as quickly and as effectively as possible, whether it’s a busted sprinkler head or the reading glasses he repaired with a strip of duct tape. It’s no doubt a work ethic he picked up in the 21 years he spent in the Army.
He served three tours in Germany, worked as an ROTC instructor at Georgia Tech University and was finally assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, where he served as a senior adviser to the commanding general.
Along with his wife of 33 years and two daughters, Williams left Fort Campbell on Dec. 21, 1996, fighting the snow to get to I-40. They decided to retire in San Antonio after a few pleasant vacations. The weather is nice, and it’s just a short 600 miles from family in Arkansas.
Several months after arriving in San Antonio, Williams went to the VA Hospital and put in an application to see if they could find him some work. They came up with a 90-day assignment at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
“I wasn’t familiar with the National Cemetery System. I didn’t even know they had a national cemetery here,” he said. “I was amazed when I came here; I’ve never seen rows of headstones like this.”
Ninety days came and went. He was then asked to stay on for another year. Fifteen years -- and thousands of headstones -- later, Williams is the only grounds crew member with his own office, albeit one covered in manila folders bursting with work contracts.
Dignity in digging
On an average day, Williams can be found digging in a muddy irrigation ditch or waging war on relentless fire ants. It’s all dirty work that he said “enables the cemetery to resemble a national shrine.”
On a recent October workday, however, he and his crews had a steep order of 11 second interments. Usually, they only have about two a day.
A second interment, also known as a “re-opener,” requires the crews to carefully excavate an existing gravesite so they may stack another casket on top of the one already inside. They are reuniting the deceased with their spouse for eternity.
The crews work diligently and quietly. They use a backhoe when possible and climb down into the grave with a shovel when they come close to the top of the already-buried casket.
From a distance, nothing more than the worker’s shovel could be seen flinging dirt out of the open grave. And when it comes time to lower the casket, sometimes they have an audience.
“We just wanted to see him get lowered down,” one family member said. The workers nodded, and solemnly continued the task. They understand the importance of a proper burial. Not only do they see people in mourning nearly every day of their lives, but 98 percent of the grounds crew members are veterans.
“We want this to be a smooth transition for them as they come in and bury their loved ones for the day,” Williams said. “And as they leave the cemetery, they have a good remembrance of what took place here. And we provide a great service to the veterans and their families.”
Every morning, the American flag is lowered to half staff before the first burial. Then the visitors start to come. Williams said the grounds crews all know who the regulars are. They bring their lawn chairs and umbrellas and sit by the ones they love and miss the most, sometimes staying for close to an hour.
“They leave, they come back the next day and do the same thing, and come back the day after that,” Williams said. “And all of a sudden, you don’t see them anymore.”
Then a new name is engraved on the back of the headstone, right next to the person they spent years missing. Reunited at last. The visitor’s time on Earth has ended, but will be forever memorialized at Fort Sam Houston along with the other 135,000 veterans and their loved ones.
As the son of a pastor, Williams said he’s spiritual by nature. He’s not bothered by death and said he’s even less bothered by it after working in the cemetery for so long. It’s just part of the job.
“You focus on the work, you focus on your mission,” he said. “You see what’s happening around you. You witness what the families are going through, but you focus on your work.”
From time to time, though, Williams said he has thought about death, but hasn’t really decided where he would like to be buried. He just wants to be buried alongside his wife whenever their time comes. He said it will likely be back in Arkansas, where their families are buried.
He said he wants to put in five more years at the cemetery before retiring. Until then, he will end each day by raising the American flag after the day’s last burial.
Williams said he will leave knowing that his calloused hands and mud-caked work boots are a salute to his fellow soldiers and their families.
“My goal is to do 20 years and support the mission anyway I can, the best I can.”
FORT SAM NATIONAL CEMETERY QUICK FACTS
- 12 Medal of Honor recipients are interred
- Cemetery's first burial was in 1926
- Didn't become a National Cemetery until 1937
- Only 202 acres out of 338 are developed