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Durango Gold Star Mother honored at national Wreaths Across America ceremonies

Gun salute will take place 10 a.m. Saturday at Greenmount Cemetery
Jill Williams dedicates a tree to her fallen son in Columbia Falls, Maine, as a part of the Tree Remembrance Program. The tree tips are harvested yearly to make wreaths for the Wreaths Across America ceremonies. Nationally, wreaths are laid on the gravestones of fallen military service members. (Courtesy of Jill Williams)

Durango resident Jill Williams became a Gold Star Mother in 2010 when her son died of gastric cancer caused by his exposure to chemicals and burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Her son, William Joseph McCotter, joined the Army after he graduated from Durango High School in 2003. Some time after his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he was promoted to warrant officer and graduated flight school as a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter pilot.

Because of McCotter’s cancer, he never flew a single mission.

He died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., at 26 years old.

William Joseph McCotter's mother dedicates a tree to him as a part of the Remembrance Tree Program in Columbia Falls, Maine. The tree is used to make wreaths for the national Wreaths Across America effort, which lays wreaths on fallen soldiers graves across the country. (Courtesy of Jill Williams)

Williams is now the president of the Durango Blue Star Mothers chapter. Blue Star Mothers is a group of mothers with children in the military. The Gold Star designation is given to mothers whose children have died as a result of their military service.

This year, after noticing her son’s gravestone in a marketing image for Wreaths Across America, Williams was made aware that she and other Gold Star Mothers could join the national wreath-laying effort.

Wreaths Across America coordinates wreath-laying ceremonies for military gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery, as well as 2,500 additional locations nationally, including Durango, and abroad. The convoy begins in Columbia Falls, Maine, where the wreath-making trees are grown. It then spreads to Arlington Cemetery and beyond.

After contacting the organization, Williams was invited to the weeklong convoy.

While in Columbia Falls she took part in the Tree Remembrance Program and dedicated a wreath-making tree to her son. Using military tags provided by the organization, Williams tagged her chosen tree.

“It just looked strong like my son, and I feel like it represented him in many ways,” she said of her chosen tree. “That tree is Billy’s forever.”

Tree tips are harvested yearly to make wreaths for the national ceremonies.

Now, Williams is accompanying the convoy on its way through New Jersey to Arlington Cemetery. The convoy’s path is police-escorted and closed to traffic. There are signs, sirens and other monuments of honor set up along the way.

Boxes of wreaths for Wreaths Across America are shipped from Columbia Falls, Maine. (Courtesy of Jill Williams)
Gold Star families are honored at the national Wreaths Across America ceremonies. (Courtesy of Jill Williams)

“We are honored and received,” she said. “It is such an incredible expedition. There are not enough words to describe this.”

Once at the Arlington Cemetery, Williams will lay a wreath on her son’s gravestone. She plans to do so contemporaneously with the ceremonies happening at her home in Durango.

The convoy reached Durango on Monday.

“Today the semitruck driver arrived and delivered the 114 boxes of wreaths for the ceremony on Saturday,” said American Heritage Girls Troop CO2517 Coordinator Heather Drake.

Wreaths for Wreaths Across America arrive in Durango. American Heritage Girls and volunteers unload the shipment. (Courtesy of American Heritage Girls Troop CO2517)

American Heritage Girls Troop CO2517 brought Wreaths Across America to Durango in 2020. This year, Blue Star Mothers, Daughters of the American Revolution and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 are also involved.

A gun salute ceremony will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at Greenmount Cemetery. Then wreaths will be laid at Greenmount, Crestview, Bayfield and Ignacio East and West cemeteries.

More than 1,000 graves were sponsored this year in La Plata County.

“The mission of Wreaths Across America is to remember, honor and teach, and we will take this experience and bring it forward and teach others about Blue Star moms, Gold Star moms and Gold Star families,” Williams said. “We will spread patriotism as far as we can.”

To sponsor a wreath for next year’s ceremony, visit https://www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/pages/164769.

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