CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Earnest Williams Jr.
Cold War / Iraqi Freedom Oral History Interview
US Army, New Jersey Army National Guard
Date: November 21, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Mario Bertinelli
NJ State Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Earnest Williams Jr. initially enlisted in the United States Army in September 1985. His decision to join the military came after graduating from high school. While his immediate family did not serve, he remembers the excitement of seeing his uncle, who served in Vietnam, and his fifth-grade teacher, who was serving in the NJ National Guard, in uniform as a child. Despite having access to several sports scholarships, Williams felt that he was not “cut out for college.” In addition, he also felt a strong desire to get away from his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, due the prevalence of drugs and other negative influences in his neighborhood.
Inspired by his uncle and teacher, Williams “decided to do something honorable” and enlisted in the Army, when he would have otherwise been leaving for college. He picked the Army over the other branches after seeing an Army commercial while with his best friend and talking about what they were going to do with their lives. They decided they would join the military together; they went to their local post office, where an Army recruiter was present, and Williams and his friend enlisted, although his friend was subsequently not accepted. Williams kept his enlistment a secret from his parents until the day before his recruiter came to pick him up for basic training. Today, both he and his mother, despite her initial reaction to it, regard his decision to join the US Army as one of the best he ever made.
After graduating from basic and advanced artillery training, Williams was assigned to Bamberg, Germany. It was during the Cold War, and the mission of his unit was to patrol and protect the West German border. In addition to his duties as a field artilleryman and a logistics specialist, he was also part of the Special Weapons Team, which was responsible for testing the capability of nuclear munitions. Williams left Germany in February 1989. The Berlin Wall fell later that year, and he managed to secure a piece of the it as a souvenir.
After returning from Germany, Williams was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina for a year and a half. His unit was alerted to participate in Operation Just Cause; but, at the last minute, was not sent to Panama. In 1990, he volunteered to go to South Korea as part of the US Army Cohort Program, which replaced a unit whose tour of duty was up in its entirety, instead of replacing individuals as their tours elapsed. A month and a half after Williams and Alpha Battery were deployed to Korea, the rest of his battalion was deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm. Alpha Battery stayed in Korea for 18 months. While in Korea, Williams and the rest of his unit were stationed on various bases conducting border patrol missions along the DMZ. He remembered the atmosphere in Korea at the time and said it had not changed much today. Williams was sent back home a few months early to take care of his mother who had fallen ill.
After returning to the United States, Williams was stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey for a year before being transferred to Fort Drum in New York, where he remembered the winters as “the coldest on the planet.” After three years at Fort Drum, he decided to leave the active Army to focus on raising his family in one location. Williams was not prepared, however, to give up the military life completely; so, he enlisted in the New Jersey National Guard. He chose the National Guard due to familiarity with the Guard from his Fort Dix days, when the New Jersey Guard trained at the post.
In keeping with his military specialty, Williams joined the New Jersey National Guard’s A Battery 3rd Battalion 112th Field Artillery and was stationed in Morristown, New Jersey. He was appointed a section chief, carrying the same responsibilities and mission in the Guard as he did while on active duty. While in the Guard, Williams also worked a civilian job as an assistant chief of security at Ramapo College. One September morning, as he was ending his night shift, the Twin Towers fell. Williams immediately called his unit and volunteered to help with area security, which involved guarding airports in full combat gear.
When the Army was looking for National Guard volunteers to serve in Iraq in 2003, Williams stepped forward without hesitation. He was assigned to a 186-member company, featuring many different Military Occupational Specialties. The company was instructed in basic Military Police tactics; and, in January 2004, flew into Kuwait from Fort Dix after 30 days of training. After five days in Kuwait, the unit flew to Camp Cuervo, Baghdad, Iraq. Unused to the climate of the Middle East, Williams, along with some other soldiers in his unit, got sick after arriving. He remembered the transition from New Jersey to Kuwait, saying that “there was a bad ice storm and freezing cold up in the air when we left; and, when we landed in Kuwait, it was one hundred and…nine/ten humidity.” While in Baghdad, the unit’s mission was interacting with the local police, helping them build up their forces to protect their people. The company was in Iraq for one year and left on the day of the 2005 Iraqi Elections.
On their return to the United States, the unit was honored with a large homecoming celebration. The subsequent adjustment back to civilian life was difficult, as the company had four of its members killed in action, two of whom were from Williams’ platoon, in Iraq. In 2005, Williams was offered a full-time position in the New Jersey Active Guard Reserve (AGR), which he gladly accepted. His readjustment to life in New Jersey was assisted by reuniting with his family and his new AGR job.
The entire New Jersey National Guard brigade was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in 2008 to guard prisoners and to perform other tasks in the region. Williams, then a first sergeant, was assigned to the 117th Cavalry, stationed in Camp Bucca. As part of the unit’s Field Engineering Team, his mission involved constructing bunkers around Camp Bucca, along with any other engineering projects the base needed. Since his second deployment was a much calmer one than his first, Williams was able to go back to school; he took some correspondence college courses while on deployment.
After returning home again, Williams was stationed at the Toms River Armory as the first sergeant of Bravo Battery 3rd Battalion, 112th Field Artillery. His mission there was “a lot of training and preparing for a possible deployment.” From Toms River, he returned to Morristown, where he was operations sergeant major for the brigade, and then command sergeant major of the unit at Morristown. Williams was promoted to brigade sergeant major for the 57th Troop Command, and then the command sergeant major of the state, the highest non-commissioned officer rank in the New Jersey National Guard.
The thing that Williams is most proud of in his life is his family. He has a loving wife, five children, and a grandson. Three of his sons are involved in the military; two are currently serving in the New Jersey and Georgia National Guards, with the third, who will most likely also join the National Guard, currently in college. Looking back, Williams said he is proud of his service and told the interviewer, “I wouldn’t change a thing. I volunteered in ’04, and I would do it again if I have to. It’s definitely been a highlight of my career, and I’m glad I had an opportunity to serve my country.”
CSM Earnest Williams’ military awards include: Bronze Star w/ 1 Oak Leaf Cluster, Meritorious Service Medal w/ 1 Oak Leaf Cluster, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal w/ 2 Silver Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal w/ 3 Campaign Stars, Global War on Terror Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Ribbon, Armed Forces Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal w/ M Device (3) and Silver Hourglass, NCO Professional Development Ribbon (3rd Award), Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon (4th Award), Meritorious Unit Commendation