How to reflect on this Memorial Day

Most veterans don’t talk much about their military service. You must experience it to understand truly.

This Memorial Day will be followed by the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944. In that battle, after just 24 hours, over 4,400 soldiers died on the beaches of Normandy in the service of their country. Each gave what President Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

Sometimes the real cost of liberty is best appreciated by zooming in on one brave soul whose life made a real difference. For me, that man is Command Sgt. Major Donovan Watts.

Watts was a career soldier who notched over 28 years in the Army. Most of it was spent on the sharp tip of the spear with the elite 82nd Airborne Division. He started there as a young paratrooper, was promoted to squad leader, and attained the rank of senior noncommissioned officer of the 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. I first met him at Army posts in Fort Polk and later at Fort Bragg.

I always knew Watts would have my back. He was the epitome of a soldier and was proud to tell everyone he was married to the Army. He often joked, “If the Army wanted me to have a wife, they would have issued me one.”

Sgt. Fernando Arroyo wrote about Watts in his book, The Shadow of Death: From My Battles in Fallujah to the Battle for My Soul.

Arroyo joined the Army after 9/11. He served in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2003 and 2004 and earned his elite Ranger tab in 2005. Later that year, he came up for promotion and appeared before the Sergeant Promotion Board. Watts was the presiding officer, and it was an encounter Arroyo will always remember.

“I had to look at him and salute and say, ‘Cpl. Arroyo reporting as ordered,’” Arroyo said.

He recalls Watts just stared at him, taking his measure. The room was silent. Regulations required Arroyo to hold his salute until it was acknowledged. He stood stiff as a board as the other two sergeants critiqued his uniform and tried their best to rattle him.

Suddenly, Watts decided he’d had enough. He stood, saluted Arroyo, and said, “Have a seat. Tell me about yourself.”

Arroyo says that caught him completely off-guard. It was the first time an officer showed an interest in his life beyond the military.

“He got me to think about the future and the rest of my life,” he recalls.

The entire mood shifted when the sergeants saw he had earned the elite Ranger tab. That’s when Watts declared, “There are three kinds of dogs.”

He explained that there was the pampered house dog, the sheltered porch dog, and, finally, the bedraggled, vigilant guard dog who lives outside in the yard. The yard dog, he said, must dig a hole to sleep in. He’s rained on and gets grimy. And this dog wants action so badly he can’t wait for someone to trespass and jump the fence.

The sergeants all chuckled at Watts’s description of the yard dog’s miserable life. Arroyo joined in the merriment. But he recalls that Watts suddenly grew serious, and the room grew quiet.

“Everybody just stopped laughing,” Arroyo recalled. “And he looked me right in the eyes. And he stops smiling and says, ‘So, what kind of dog are you?’”

“I’m a yard dog, Sergeant Major!” Arroyo proudly declared.

“That’s right, boy! You’re a yard dog. You’re airborne infantry. We’re out front. That’s the kind of leader we need!”

A few days later, Arroyo learned he’d been promoted to sergeant. He would go on to learn first-hand, as I did, that Watts’s reputation for putting the welfare of his soldiers above his own was well-earned. 

“He always took care of us,” Arroyo said.

That loyalty to his soldiers would ultimately cost Watts his life. Rather than stay safely in the camp to supervise operations — his rank entitled him to that, and no one would have questioned it — he wanted to be with his “yard dog” troops out on patrol, where enemy improvised explosive devices made every patrol perilous.  

One day, Arroyo had just returned from a mission when he heard a loud explosion. Everyone grabbed their weapons and ran to respond. But soon, the word came over the radio for everyone to stand down and report to the hospital. They knew that was bad news.

“A medevac helicopter landed and turned off its engines,” Arroyo recalled. One of the sergeants walked out of the hospital and told the men to prepare to pay their last respects to Watts. Moments later, the sergeants emerged carrying a body draped in the American flag.

“As they walked him to the helicopter, it was so quiet,” Arroyo said. “We just rendered a final salute. We watched as the helicopter crew got in, turned on the engines, and just flew away with Sgt. Maj. Watts’s body. And we’d lost our sergeant major.”

Take a moment to ponder the profound, ultimate sacrifice of selfless heroes such as Watts.

In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he urged every American to commit themselves to ensuring the deaths of those who fought for their country were not in vain.

Toward that end, on June 8, my colleagues at CityServe will join a team from Voice of the Veteran and from Las Vegas-area churches in hosting a “Day of Gratitude” at Allegiant Stadium, the site of this year’s Super Bowl. We will be honoring veterans and their families with special musical guests, entertainment for young children, and over $3 million in household essentials.

We do so in remembrance of heroes. We do so because, as Winston Churchill once put it, “We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” 

What would Watts say if he were with us today? 

When that question was posed to Arroyo, he answered: “Command Sgt. Maj. Watts would say that our service was not in vain, that since September 11th, there has not been an attack on our soil, and that we kept the enemy outside so people could live their lives.”

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After a somber pause, he added, “He would say the sacrifice of leaving the homeland to prevent another 9/11 was worth it.” 

On Memorial Day, let’s honor Watts and all the other brave heroes just like him who believed America was well worth the ultimate sacrifice.

Retired Army Col. Samuel Clear is the program manager for CityServe West Cook. He served as a deputy G-3 in Kuwait and chief of plans for U.S. Army Central in Afghanistan.

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