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Doug Robinson: An honor long overdue

Published: Monday, June 2 2014 8:02 p.m. MDT

Utah's Pat Watkins, center, receives the Distinguished Service Cross during a ceremony at Duke Field in Florida. He is flanked by brigadier general Michael D. Tutello, left, Deputy Commander of U.S. Army Special Forces, and Col. Robert M. Kirila, Commander of 7th Special Forces.

Doug Robinson, Bamboo Shook

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It’s been more than four decades since Pat Watkins roamed the jungles of Vietnam in search of enemy targets, and while he was there he committed so many acts of heroism that the Army and politicians have been trying to catch up with him ever since.

Maybe you saw the news about the Utahn who was honored last month in a special ceremony in Florida. That was Watkins. Now 75 years old, he was awarded the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross for something he did in virtually another lifetime.

For the uninitiated, the DSC is the military’s second-highest honor. Only the Medal of Honor is considered higher. The Medal of Honor is for “intrepid" heroism, the DSC for “extraordinary” heroism. Both have this much in common: Nearly half of the recipients are dead when they receive the honor, which is often the cost of intrepid and extraordinary heroism.

Watkins has learned to be patient in these matters. In 2001 he received a Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor from Sen. Orrin Hatch for heroism during a classified mission that occurred 23 years earlier in Laos.

For the record, Watkins now owns five Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, two Army Commendation Medals for valor and four Air Medals. During his three tours of Vietnam, many of his missions were classified, including 19 behind enemy lines, all but one of which resulted in firefights.

I got to know Watkins about 15 years ago. By then he was working for the V.A. hospital and was a top master’s runner on the local road-racing scene. He and his wife Carol were raising two daughters. I wrote a lengthy 4,000-word story for the Deseret News in 2001 about Watkins' war experiences.

In that story I described Watkins’ heroic actions in a nighttime raid in 1968 that were finally recognized last month with the awarding of the Distinguished Service Cross.

He defied death many times as a member of the Army’s special forces, taking on missions that would often take him behind enemy lines disguised in enemy uniforms. As I wrote in the 2001 piece, he survived firefights, bombs, napalm, ambushes, leeches, snakes and even attacks by monkeys and the stalking of a tiger.

Sleep was impossible on a mission.

“You had to sleep with one eye open,” he told me at the time. “You were afraid someone would snore. When we did sleep, we slept in the shape of a wagon wheel, with our backs leaning against each other. We set up land mines in a circle around our camp … One night we heard NVA crawling toward us. … We blew the mines ... We never saw them, but we heard them screaming.”

As a member of the 5th Special Forces Group, Watkins' job was to rescue downed pilots, gather information, kidnap enemy officers, plant mines and gather intelligence for air strikes.

Watkins had joined the Army to escape poverty. He was raised on an Indiana farm by a single mother who supported four children on tips she earned as a small-town waitress. He was so poor that he had to pass up track scholarship offers because he didn’t have enough money to cover the other expenses of a college education. The family home had no running water and the kids gathered corn cobs at a local mill to sell them door to door to burn in fireplaces. He didn't eat three meals a day until he signed up for the Army.

He saw enough action in Vietnam to fill a Rambo movie. The battle that led to the Distinguished Service Cross occurred, of all places, at headquarters in Da Nang when Sappers — a Viet Cong commando unit — managed to infiltrate security late at night and overran the base, killing 18 Americans and wounding 30.

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