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.
The medal citation reads, in part: “Despite being wounded in the initial assault, Staff Sergeant Watkins quickly organized a small reaction force to repel the attack and rescue wounded Americans while leading them to a defensive position through a gauntlet of machine gun fire and grenades. Staff Sergeant Watkins disregarded his own safety to direct the recovery of the many wounded men and repeatedly engaged and killed enemy sappers. Despite receiving several more wounds from grenade shrapnel, Staff Sergeant Watkins repeatedly repelled numerous sappers as he continued the search for the wounded. He refused medical aid and on one occasion fiercely charged an onrushing NVA sniper, killing him and preventing the sniper’s continuing infliction of numerous friendly casualties. His actions inspired his men to greater heights to defeat the enemy and successfully defend the compound.”
After being released from the hospital, Watkins was told he would receive a medal for his actions. Numerous eyewitness statements were submitted, but nothing happened and Watkins forgot about it. It wasn’t until he attended a special forces reunion in Las Vegas in 2009 that the subject was raised again.
Joe Conlon, one of the eyewitnesses from that climactic battle, asked Watkins why he never received a medal. Conlon began making inquiries and the process was begun. Who knew it would take five years of collecting affidavits from eyewitnesses, an endorsement from a senator, approval by the armed forces committee, the gathering of still more information and an act of Congress before it was finally approved two years ago, only to be delayed by sequestration and a government shutdown.
“To tell you the truth,” Watkins says. “I never thought about it too much till five years ago at reunion. They got mad.”
This time it was others who came to Watkins' aid. The Army had forgotten about his exploits that night 46 years ago, but no one who was there that night ever forgot.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org