Why We Serve: Air Force NCO Shares His View on Service
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2007 A 17-year Air Force veteran who led vehicles more than 20,000 miles across Kuwait and Iraq during 18 missions -- rolling over streets often flanked with armed insurgents and littered with roadside bombs -- is sharing the message of his service with the American people.
Tech. Sgt. Howard L. Watkins served as a convoy commander with the 70th Medium Truck Detachment based at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Through the Defense Department’s “Why We Serve” speakers program, he carries the lessons of his military experience and shares them with the American public at speaking events across the country.
One night, a 155 mm homemade artillery round strapped to a propane tank detonated next to a civilian truck attached to Watkins’ convoy. “That truck was completely engulfed in flames in 20 seconds,” he recalled.
Watkins ran to the burning truck to rescue victims inside. He and a fellow airman found the truck driver, who suffered wounds to his head and torso in the blast, and moved him away from the truck. Mindful that his team was vulnerable to ambush while standing still, Watkins got the convoy moving again, calling for medical assistance for the injured driver on the radio while coordinating the vehicles to drive toward safety.
“One of the great things about my job when I deploy as a convoy commander is that I have a great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment in what I do,” he said. “When you go on deployment like this most recent one, you develop an immensely strong bond with the people that you’re working with. You really are dependent on these people for your life.”
The story of Watkins’ first step into service begins like many others. His small hometown -- Seligman, Mo., which boasts a population under 1,000 -- presented few job opportunities. As a high school senior, Watkins’ ambition stretched as far as graduation, but not much further. He lacked direction, he said.
“About a quarter of the way through my senior year, I knew I wanted to get out of the area. The military seemed like the best way to go,” said Watkins, who decided to enlist in the Army and follow the footsteps of his father, who served in the 101st Airborne Division during the World War II.
“But when I went to the recruiting station in Joplin, Mo., of course they’ve got all the different branches of service next to each other,” he said. “I got there right around lunch time, and both the Air Force and Army recruiter were going to eat at the same time.
“The Army recruiter just sort of looked at me and passed me by, whereas the Air Force recruiter was the one that actually stopped and talked to me,” Watkins said. “I remember his name and everything. It was Tech. Sergeant Fitzner.”
The decision to join the Air Force has worked out for Watkins. He was named Air Combat Command’s transportation noncommissioned officer of the year for 2006. He has earned the Bronze Star Medal, three Air Force Commendation Medals and three Air Force Achievement Medals.
“I believe that everything happens for a reason,” Watkins said about his decision to join the Air Force. “I was probably an easier sell to the Army recruiter,” he joked, “if he hadn’t been quite as hungry that day.”
Watkins is one of eight servicemembers who have served overseas in the war on terrorism who are traveling throughout the United States to speak to community groups and businesses in the “Why We Serve” public outreach program.
The program was initially the idea of Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and began in the fall of 2006. Eight servicemembers, two from each branch of the military, are chosen to participate in the program each quarter.