I believe that people hear the call of service at an early age. Their interests become centralized in that specific area and as they grow, they realize that service is not always fun and filled with laughter. Service to country means giving up certain degrees, if not all, of one’s life in order to protect and defend our freedoms.
Growing up in the sleepy little city of South Boston, Virginia, William Randolph Watkins, III, felt the call of duty early on in his life. His brother, Barksdale Watkins, fondly remembers sharing a room with his older brother and recalls William’s obsession with airplanes and boats. Models filled the boy’s room and when it became a bit overcrowded, William would take a select few out to the paved driveway and stage an epic battle, which meant something was going to be set on fire. Of course, setting things ablaze was not the only thing William did in his spare time. During his high school years at Woodberry Forest, he participated in numerous plays and was very active in the Episcopal Church where he served as a camp counselor during the summer months.
As time went on, William was accepted to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he spent much of his time participating with the Glee Club and earned a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and, later, graduated from Embry Riddle University with a Master’s degree. His next stop was a no brainer – flight school. He became a Naval Flight Officer and did six month deployments in the Mediterranean on the USS Kennedy and the USS Eisenhower, which also happened to be the first ship to have women in a combat zone.
Having an exceptional flying record was quite the accomplishment and did not go unnoticed. In February of 2003, he was asked by a Commanding Officer to deploy to Qatar with the 335th Chiefs in order to instruct and help other young pilots. By this point in his life, William was married with a young son and another baby on the way. His devotion to country had not been augmented but had evolved. In an e-mail to his sister in April of 2003 he had written, “Of all the opportunities that I have had or have missed to fly in combat, this time was the only time I was not planning to be the first in line to go. Not because I didn’t believe in the cause, but because I felt that I was needed more at home…. Ultimately though, my primary motivation in doing this is to make the world safer for my children.” Shortly after this e-mail was sent, William and his crew were flying a mission to drop bombs in a heated area between Baghdad and Tikrit. Unable to obtain proficient accuracy, they were forced to dive to approximately 5,000 feet. Their plane went down on the third or fourth pass. For sixteen gut-wrenching days, the family waited to hear the news they so desperately both wanted and feared. Regardless, they knew William did everything he could to save the lives of his fellow airmen. For his bravery in times of peril, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
We honor William not because he died in the line of duty, but because he was fighting to defend our freedoms and wanted a better world for his children. He knew that there might come a time for him to sacrifice all, and he was willing to do so.
I would like to thank Barksdale Watkins for sharing these wonderful memories of his brother with me. William was a true hero and his story deserves to be told to all who care for this great nation and the men and women who serve and defend it.