BUTTE — U.S. Army Sgt. J.D. Williams never really wanted a Purple Heart. Nobody does, he said.
The 23-year-old Harrison High School graduate is missing his right arm and both legs, amputated after he stepped on an improvised explosive device in October in Afghanistan.
Williams received the decoration Nov. 6 from his hospital bed at Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. About 12 friends and family attended the ceremony, held the same days as his daughter's first birthday. The Purple Heart is awarded to any military personnel wounded or killed in an action against the enemy.
His wounds now closed and skin grafts removed, Williams told The Montana Standard in a telephone interview that it felt good to be honored, but that he hopes not to see any of his fellow soldiers have to endure the same pain.
"I'm just glad I stepped on that IED," Williams said. "Otherwise, it would have been one of my buddies."
An infantryman with HHC 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry, Williams, who grew up in Anaconda, spent more than five months fighting the Taliban and pushing toward an end to the war.
Braving mortars and what he counted are 55 firefights, Williams patrolled on clearance operations near the Kandahar Province. From village to village, his company sought the best loopholes for their snipers to keep Taliban fighters from setting new explosives.
On Oct. 9, at 8:30 a.m., Williams took one wrong step. The blast sent him 20 feet in the air, he said, and left a 6-foot crater in the ground.
"It was just a weird experience," Williams said. "I looked down at my legs, and I thought I was split in half. That's when I seriously thought I was done for."
Williams' mother, Danielle Scholler, of Ennis, sees the Purple Heart pinned to her son's chest and is just thankful he survived.
"The phone call could have been so much worse," Scholler said.
A quiet morning
The day began well, Williams remembers, at a much more comfortable 100 degrees.
"It was actually a beautiful morning," he said.
A beautiful morning and rather quiet, considering that the Taliban had already moved into this particular village and secured a trove of fighting positions.
Williams took additional caution, dropping to a knee and feeling the hard ground. He paid close attention to where he walked, but no one could have detected the underlying IED without digging into the dirt.
When the smoke from the explosion cleared and Williams could finally see again, he rolled over and tried to assess his injuries. He remained conscious the entire time.
Taking long, deep breaths, Williams lay on his back and stared into the sky. He thought about his wife, Ashlee, and almost 1-year-old daughter Kaelyn back home.
"I always thought I was unstoppable," Williams said.
It took 19 minutes to load Williams onto a helicopter and out of danger. Doctors in Germany performed the necessary amputations and sent him back to the United States on Oct. 15.
Williams is making progress at Brooke Army Medical Center. He can now roll from side to side. He has learned to brush his teeth left-handed, and he can get himself into his wheelchair.
There is a chance he could be released from the hospital next week to begin outpatient physical therapy, a process that could take from a year to 18 months while he learns to use his prostheses.
Williams calls himself a lucky man.
"I really think God has a purpose for me on this planet," he said. "I will find it, whatever it is."
The cards, letters and support keep Williams motivated, his mother said.
"They keep him positive and remind him he is still a hero," she said. "If he did not have the support he has, the excruciating pain might have brought him down."
Donations to the Sgt. J.D. Williams Benefit Fund at First Madison Valley Bank in Ennis topped $30,000 at one point, Scholler said, give more family members the chance to make the trip to visit.
Scholler, Williams' father, Jack, Ashlee and Kaelyn are planning to live on base until they can see Williams through his physical therapy.
Scholler is home for the weekend and will appear at a pair of benefits Saturday, one in Anaconda and one in Butte, to personally thank those who lent their support.
"There's been so much going on, I can't even keep up with it all," she said. "Montana loves their soldiers, I can tell you that."