Family, friends remember Will McLawhorn

Published 9:24 pm Friday, April 1, 2011

Army Sgt. Will McLawhorn Jr. scans the Afghanistan landscape in this photo taken on Nov. 10, 2010. The Conway man died in combat just over one month later (Dec. 12). Photo courtesy of the McLawhorn family

CONWAY – Today would have been a day of celebration.

Now April 2 will be a day of remembrance in Conway.

Family and friends of the late Sgt. Will McLawhorn Jr. will spend his birthday remembering the legacy of a young man who was beloved in his community and who lost his life defending freedom.

“I’m expecting a pretty tough day to be honest,” said Will’s father, the Rev. Willie McLawhorn, Friday morning. “It’s already been a tough week. The autopsy came back earlier this week so it’s been rough.”

Rev. McLawhorn said that it really hasn’t gotten easier since his son was killed in Afghanistan in December of last year.

“No, it hasn’t gotten easier,” he said. “Being a pastor, I’ve dealt with those who have lost a loved one and tried to offer encouragement. The pain is still very real and very deep right now.

“In counseling people, I often tell them the first year after you lose someone is tough because it is a year of firsts –birthday, Easter, Christmas – those types of things,” he added. “I know it’s tough, but I didn’t realize how tough until I went through it myself. It has given me a different perspective on my ministry for those who have lost loved ones; a deeper appreciation of what they’ve gone through.”

The McLawhorn family plans to spend Saturday as a family day and to remember Will together.

Meanwhile, many of Will’s friends are also missing someone they cared deeply for.

“He was a great friend; a good guy who would do anything for you,” said Josh Vinson, a longtime friend of Will’s. “He always knew how to make you laugh.”

McLawhorn and Vinson attended church together and school together and spent much of their free time hanging around as friends.

Vinson said he greatly missed his friend.

“It’s been hard, but I know he died doing something he loved and he died a great hero and that makes it easier,” Vinson said. “I think he knew when he went over there that there was a chance that it would happen. It’s bad, but that makes it a little better.

“I miss him a lot and I think about him all the time,” he added.

A childhood friend, Hannah Southern, said Will McLawhorn was the first friend she remembered.

“Our dads were both preachers in the same area and our mothers both worked at the health department in Whiteville,” Southern said. “I have an older sister and so did Will and the three of us (the girls) would gang up on him and make him do girly things with us. I loved him so much.”

Southern said she still thought of Will on a regular basis.

“It’s been really hard,” she said. “I have moments where I think about Will and it makes me very emotional. I still have the program from his memorial service. I leave it in my car so I can still see him and think about him.”

Southern said she recently had a dream about her friend and the small, blonde-haired boy in the dream is how she still remembered him.

Despite his loss in combat, she is proud of his service and said it has inspired her as well.

“I was so proud of him for joining the military and being willing to risk his life to serve,” she said. “It has partially inspired me to consider joining the Navy. It has inspired me to think about what I can do for my country too.

“I know it was something he really enjoyed and was really proud of,” she continued. “That’s what he wanted to do and he knew what the risks were. He also knew he was doing something with meaning and purpose.”

Lori Coggins got to know Will when his dad became the pastor at her church, Conway Baptist. Coggins said she had several good memories of Will.

“The best way I remember Will was when I was in ninth grade and he was a junior,” she said. “We went to prom and my date left me and Will took me home.”

She said the two had the opportunity to do many things together with the church, including a missions trip with World Changers in Augusta, Georgia on which they worked together for a week.

“For me it has been really difficult,” she said. “I recently lost my dad and then Will being so close to me. I really felt for Preacher Willie and Dianne (Will’s mother). I knew how much it hurt me to lose a parent and I couldn’t imagine losing a son.”

Lance Jenkins played just about every sport at Northeast Academy alongside Will. They played football, basketball and basketball together.

“Will and I were really good friends,” said Jenkins. “We rode to the prom twice together. It’s memories like that that I have and cherish.”

Jenkins remembered a particular story when the two played basketball.

“We were gearing up for Senior Night against Terra Ceia and Johnny (Brown, then the basketball coach at Northeast) was going to give Will a chance to start because of being a senior,” Jenkins said. “He didn’t want to do it because he didn’t think it was in the best interest of the team. People gained a lot of respect for him because of that.”

Jenkins said he missed his friend, but that Will McLawhorn was a special person.

“Will is one of the best success stories the Army could tell,” he said. “The world lost someone special with Will, but Heaven sure gained a wonderful person.”

Will dated Jessica Bolton for more than a year and a half and the two had been friends long before that.

She said he was a funny, out-going person and someone who truly loved his family.

“I had always joked with Will about doing something romantic,” she said. “Well, my birthday rolled around and I got a phone calling that night telling me to go out my back door and follow the petals. He had lined flower petals from my back porch to my neighbor’s open shed in their back yard.

“When I got back there, Will stood there with candles and a table with chairs and sparkling grape juice,” she added. “That was something I will always remember.”

Bolton said Will was someone that truly impacted her life.

“Will was such an important person and made an impact in my life,” she said. “I am so proud to say that I had him in my life, as well as his family. They are so strong and loved him so much.”

She said that he was truly someone that loved his family, especially his mother.

“I would always joke around with him for being a mama’s boy and he would always reply that he loved his mama more than anything in the world,” she said.

Bolton also said that in addition to her gratitude, Will had her respect.

“To me, Will is a representative of Conway as someone that died fighting for what he believed in, something that not many people would sacrifice their life for. For that, I truly respect him.”

For his family, the days without their loved one are like a roller coaster ride.

“Some days are better than others,” Rev. McLawhorn said. “It seems like we go along several days and do well, but all of a sudden the deepness of the pain will come back .”

Will McLawhorn would have celebrated his 24th birthday today and while he may be gone, he is by no means forgotten.