MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. --
Marines join the Corps to fight for their country, but when Sgt. Edgar Williams, Motor Transport chief for Quantico’s Range Management Branch, joined the Marine Corps, it was also to escape a life of fighting. Recruited into a gang at the age of 14, Williams had cultivated a rap sheet of juvenile offenses and a mean reputation in his hometown of West Memphis, Ark., when he decided, five years later, that he wanted out.
On Dec. 13, he was one of four individuals recognized by the Prince William County Healthy Communities Healthy Youth Council as “Local Heroes,” for the work he has done to prevent other young people from falling into the lifestyle he once led.
Richard Buchholz, coordinator for Prince William County Juvenile Court’s Gang Response Intervention Team and Williams’ nominator for the award, said the sergeant had spoken to two sessions of school staff, recorded two film segments to educate staff and students, done a radio interview and regularly mentored at-risk youth the county brings to the National Museum of the Marine Corps, all since the two met late last spring.
“He’s really putting himself out there and taking a risk when talking about his past,” Buchholz said as the award ceremony at the Edward L. Kelly Leadership Center was about to get underway. “He’s a wealth of knowledge when it comes to passing out information.”
Williams said he works to keep teens out of gangs “because no one did it for me. In the back of my mind, I knew all I needed was a role model.”
As a teenager, the same charisma and drive that led him to be named homecoming king and captain of the football team drew the attention of gang leaders, he said.
“The gang mentality is, ‘We need him. He’s going to bring in other people,’” Williams explained. “’He’s going to fight with us, or we’re going to fight him.’”
He joined and rose through the ranks. People expected him to live up to the reputation of his father, who was “a pretty tough dude,” he said.
However, Williams hit a turning point when he found himself fighting a childhood friend. “He was red and I was blue,” he said. “I was so deep into the colors, I didn’t see the friendship no more.”
But the incident didn’t sit well with him. “I knew that guy since I was 3 years old,” he said. “He grew up right down the street from me. My momma knows his momma.”
He joined Job Corps, where a Marine Corps staff sergeant made an appearance and talked with him. But he wasn’t able to extricate himself completely from the gang lifestyle until he called the recruiter to come and get him.
“I was just smart enough to know all that stays at home,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m ready to change, ready to get away, ready to use my talents in a positive manner.’ And that was 10 years ago.”
Of the four other members of his old “crew,” he said, one is dead, his brother is serving life in prison, a cousin is serving 23 years, and another cousin was just released after 12 years in prison.
Now, Williams talks to probation officers, truant officers, teens and anyone else who will listen, trying to help others avoid the same fate. He volunteers with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, working with the children of fallen service members. He’s pursuing a degree in juvenile justice and has enlisted Buchholz’ mentoring toward that end.
“He’s able to convey how he made bad choices, but how he was able to turn his life around by making a good choice,” Buchholz said. “It’s a powerful story.”
Williams has also set a goal to read every Marine Corps Institute manual, describing every military occupational specialty in the Corps. Of the 102 manuals that exist, he said, he’s completed 62.
“A master sergeant taught me this,” he said. “What makes you a good leader isn’t knowing everything about one thing, it’s knowing something about everything, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
He has reason to dedicate himself to the Corps so fully.
“The Marine Corps knows who I was before I joined,” he said. “They allowed me to make a transition, and I did.”
— Writer: firstname.lastname@example.org