‘It’s in the blood’: Hartsville solider following in the boot steps of family members
Sgt. Alexandra Shea
1st Armored Brigade Combat Team
1st Cavalry Division
PABRADE, Lithuania – “When I was about 6-years-old I knew I wanted to join the Army,” said Cpl. Keaton Williamson, a Hartsville native who serves as a tanker assigned to Bravo “Eagar Arms” Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet, but I knew I wanted to join.”
“My brother and I went through my granddaddies photo album from Vietnam once at Thanksgiving,” Williamson said. “We had always heard his stories. Then I saw a picture of him sitting on a tank with an M16 is one hand and an M60 in the other. Then I knew, that’s what I want to do.”
Too young to enlist during his teens, Williamson did what most teens do, attend high school. His aspirations of enlisting always in the back of his mind.
Williamson said he “grew up in a swamp” in the South Carolina town of Hartsville. Considered a small town with a population less than 8,000, he claims “it has a small-town feel.”
“Everyone knows everyone,” he said.
Like most teens, he was involved with high school activities including hanging out with friends at a local restaurant where the “Hot Plate” was the most popular menu item, playing varsity soccer, portraying the Hartsville High School’s Red Fox mascot, and served as a cadet sergeant major in his school’s Jr. ROTC.
“I’m very proud of where I graduated and of my community,” said Williamson. ‘It is a small All-American town.’
Between Jr. ROTC and playing a popular video game that portrayed U.S. Army tanks on various missions in far off lands, he was hooked.
“I kind of went behind my parent’s back,” Williamson said. “I had the recruiter out at the house. I had already signed the papers when I told my mom and dad I had enlisted. They were shocked. When I broke the news to the rest of my family, my aunt Wanda grabbed me by my arm so hard and said, ‘Do you know what you just did? You’re going to go off and lose limbs and fingers and I’m not even going to feel bad for you.’’
“I was proud and scared,” said Timothy Windham, Williamson’s father, remembering his feelings when he found out his son had enlisted. “It was mixed emotions, you know. Now, there are no words. I’m very proud of him.”
“When my mom saw me for the first time at graduation she broke down and cried,” Williamson recalled.
Windham and his wife adopted Williamson at a young age. The couple gave birth to two children, a boy and girl, who sadly passed away during infancy from a congenital heart disorder. Despite the pain they faced together, they built their own family through adoption including Williamson, paternal twin boys and a girl.
Though adopted, Williamson says they never treat or call each other as such.
“They’re my family,” Williamson said. “Those two rambunctious boys are my brothers, and that’s my mom and dad, and my sister.”
Williamson claimed he always wanted to be a big brother and his blended family gave him that opportunity. He is the oldest of the four and said he wanted his enlistment to help him serve as a role model for them.
After completing one station unit training at Fort Benning, Ga., Williamson reported to his first duty station at Fort Hood, Texas, and was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment. Though his unit was currently deployed to Romania, he remained in Texas as part of the rear detachment. While awaiting his unit’s return, he met his future wife, Elizabeth.
“She was the best part of Fort Hood,” Williamson said. “She makes me want to be a better person.”
After the battalion returned home Williamson integrated into his tank crew and section where he trained and grew professionally to obtain the rank of corporal and title of gunner.
A year later, he found himself deployed for the first time to Europe. His unit arrived at the Pabrade Training Area, Lithuania, in November 2020 as a rotational force unit. He and his crew trained with Lithuanian Land Forces to increase interoperability, battlefield communications, and build professional relationships with the Lithuanian forces.
“I’ve never seen this much snow in my life,” Williamson said.
Since arriving, Williamson has remained in constant contact with his adopted family as well as his biological family on his birth mother’s side. He already knew the history of some of his family member’s previous military service, but recently added a cousin to the list.
“I have my grandfather, great-great uncle, great grandfather and now a cousin who is in the military,” said Williamson. “He’s a tanker too.”
His grandfather, Cpl. Ronald Brown, served as a tanker during the Vietnam conflict. His great-great uncle John McClary served as a tanker during World War II in Africa. His great grandfather, Sgt. Eugene “Bates” Windham, served as a driver in Korea.
“It’s very possible it runs in the blood because there sure is a whole lot of them,” Windham said.
“I just found out a couple of days ago about my cousin,” Williamson said. “He served in the 80’s as a tanker as well.”
Throughout the history of Williamson’s blended family, he carries the pride of his family legacy with him.
“I’ve never met someone so excited to be a tanker,” said Battalion Executive Officer Maj. Patrick Lynch.
“I chose to be a 19K-M1 Armor Crewman because I wanted to be on the most destructive platform in the U.S. military,” Williamson said. “I wanted to feel that power and be in control of it.”
“Not a lot of people can say they are living their dream, but I can,” he said. “I love the Army. It’s not perfect. I have my on and off days but like I said, I love the Army.”
“He’s a really great kid and he makes me proud every day,” Windham said of his son. “That’s the things that military parents get to see regularly, versus those that don’t have kin in the military. They don’t get the satisfaction of knowing that their child is making that sacrifice. I realize that every day and I’m proud of that fact every day.”