10 Years After a Young Soldier’s Death, Every Day Is Memorial Day

The sun had just risen on Memorial Day, the 10th since his granddaughter’s death. But Gilbert Williams, known as Jud, treated it like any other morning: He stepped outside his house in Tucson, raised the American flag and went back inside.

Down the hallway, Mr. Williams, 89, walked past a bedroom that had been left mostly as it was, since the last time his granddaughter, Sam Williams Huff, had used it. It was set aside for her whenever she came to visit, her grandmother June Williams, 88, said.

The room was filled with images from Ms. Huff’s childhood. In a baby picture, she wore a dress her grandmother made. Yearbook photos charted her growth and maturation through her teenage years — one shows her in a red dress, her chocolate brown hair falling lightly over her five-foot-tall frame. The largest photo, taken shortly after her high school graduation, shows the teenage girl but in a different pose: as an Army soldier.

“Every day,” Ms. Williams said, “is Memorial Day for us.”

On April 18, 2005, Ms. Huff, a private first class in her 10th week in Baghdad, was killed when an improvised explosive device hit her Humvee. She was 18.

Private Huff was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and was fondly remembered at memorial services in Tucson with hundreds of students and staff members from Mountain View High School, where she was a drum major during her senior year.

Her friends and military superiors remembered Private Huff as a brave, sharp soldier who loved dancing and had a dazzling smile. Her team leader, Sgt. Sam James, said Private Huff had a huge thirst for knowledge.

“She was also a beautiful young lady, the kind that would turn heads in the mall,” Sergeant James said, according to a Defense Department news release at the time.

A photograph of Sam Huff
Maternal grandmother of Sam Huff, June Williams poses with a photograph of Ms. Huff on Tuesday May 26, 2015 in Tucson, Arizona.Pinar Istek/ NYT Institute

Her service to the country was memorialized in numerous articles, including pieces in The Washington Post and The Guardian, and at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington, where her uniform is on display.

But to her family in Tucson, her death was merely the beginning of their loss. Four years later, Private Huff’s mother, Margaret Williams, died in 2009 after a five-year fight against cancer. She served in the Marine Corps, and when she died, her ashes were placed right over her daughter’s grave at Arlington, June Williams said.

Private Huff was the Williams’ only grandchild. They said she took after her parents for their commitment to service. Her mother was an air traffic controller and a dispatcher for the Tucson Police Department, and worked in the communications division at the Oro Valley Police Department. Her father, Bob Huff, is a musician and retired as a detective with the Tucson Police Department.

“No one understands what it’s like except other people who’ve lost someone,” Mr. Huff said in a phone interview. “To lose someone in war who’s only 18 years old.”

Mr. Huff spent his Memorial Day weekend at a grief convention in Boulder, Colo., where he told his story to relatives of fallen service members. He talked about the time when his daughter, at age 16, first told him she wanted to join the Army. He reminded her about the war going on, but she insisted that she needed to go. She said she hoped to pursue a degree in forensic psychology and someday work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Then there were the more personal memories.

Mr. Huff said that his daughter had a knack for pranks and clever jokes. He recalled a time when he was giving her a bath when she was a toddler and trying to get her to say certain phrases. He would say words like “Cincinnati” or “Mississippi,” and she would repeat them perfectly. But when he said “jurisdiction,” his daughter shot back, “Church’s Chicken.” The memory resurfaces whenever he sees the fast-food restaurant.

During the convention, Mr. Huff’s group was encouraged to write letters to their deceased loved ones telling them about their lives now.

“When it came my time, I didn’t write to her, because I talk to her all the time. She keeps an eye on things.”

— Bob Huff

Before leaving for Colorado, Mr. Huff had dinner at his home in Tucson with Tara Martin, a daughter from a previous marriage. They spoke of Sam and recalled a stuffed animal that she carried with her from the time she was a baby. Mr. Huff got up from the table and came back with the ragged old rabbit. They both started to cry.

“She was the best of all of us,” Ms. Martin later said in a phone interview. “She was so nice, so full of life.”

Private Huff’s high school class gathered for a 10-year reunion last October. There was an obvious hole in the group, said Jennifer Palmieri, who played flute with her in the band. At least five former students of Mountain View High School were killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. At least three were from Ms. Palmieri’s class, she said.

Grandparents of Sam Huff, June Williams, right, and Gilbert Williams, left
Grandparents of Sam Huff, June Williams, right, and Gilbert Williams, left, sit in the living room of their home where Ms. Huff, the fallen soldier, left mementos behind, including pictures and stuffed animals.PINAR ISTEK/NYT INSTITUTE

On the evening before she was killed, Private Huff called her mother, her grandfather said. She said she was happy and would not want to be anywhere else.

On the day she died, the private lay mortally wounded. She asked her sergeant to tell her mother she loved her and to wish her father good luck with his instrumental album, Mr. Williams said.

After his daughter’s death, Mr. Huff put his music on hold for several months. He eventually finished his album, which he named “Sun and Moon.” The first letter of each word intentionally spells out “Sam.”

Before Private Huff left Tucson, her father received a recording of her playing part of one of his songs on her flute. On the album’s title track, Private Huff’s flute can be heard looped throughout the song. Mr. Huff said he has since mailed more than 4,000 copies of the album to families who have lost loved ones in combat.

Sometimes he wonders if he should have tried to stop his daughter from enlisting in the Army. But he knows it was something that she felt she had to do.

Now remarried, Mr. Huff said that he thinks about his daughter every day. He feels that she and Private Huff’s mother are watching over him and helped him find his new wife.

He will never have closure, he said, but he is doing everything he can to cope.

“There’s no way Sam would want me to sit around crying my eyes out all the time,” Mr. Huff said. “She lived life in a big way, and she would expect me to go on and do the same.”