Unsure How to Reflect This Memorial Day? Here’s a Story of One Hero You’ll Never Forget

By Published on May 27, 2024

Most veterans don’t talk much about their military service. It is something that must be experienced to be truly understood.

This year, Memorial Day falls a little more than a week before the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944. In the span of just 24 hours, more than 4,400 American soldiers died on the beaches of Normandy to stop the Axis powers of evil from expanding, and to liberate the nations already held under its sway. Each gave what President Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

What is the real cost of liberty? Let’s look at one brave soul whose life made a real difference. That man is Command Sgt. Major Donovan Watts.

The Sharp Tip of the Spear

Watts was a career soldier who served more than 28 years in the U.S. 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, then was promoted to squad leader, and finally 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 in Louisiana (now known as Fort Johnson), and later at Fort Bragg in North Carolina (now known as Fort Liberty).

I always knew Watts would have my back. He was a quintessential soldier who proudly told everyone he had married the U.S. 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 (Fidelis Publishing, 2022).

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

“I had to look at him and salute and say, ‘Corporal Arroyo reporting as ordered,’” Arroyo recalls now.

Watts just stared at him, taking his measure. The room was silent. Regulations required Arroyo to hold his salute until the senior officer acknowledged it. 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.”

Three Kinds of Dogs

Arroyo was caught completely off guard. It was the first time an officer had shown 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 Arroyo had earned the elite Ranger tab. That’s when Watts declared, “There are three kinds of dogs”: the pampered house dog, the sheltered porch dog, and finally, the bedraggled, vigilant guard dog who lives outside in the yard.

The yard dog, Watts said, must dig a hole to sleep in. He gets rained on and grimy. And this dog wants to see action so bad he can’t wait for someone to jump the fence so he can attack.

Everyone chuckled at Watts’s description of the yard dog’s miserable life.

But suddenly, Watts suddenly grew quite serious, and the room fell quiet.

“Everybody just stopped laughing,” Arroyo recalls. “And he looked me right in the eyes. And he stopped smiling and said, ‘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 firsthand, 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 says.

Staying With His ‘Yard Dogs’

That loyalty to his soldiers would ultimately cost Watts his life. Rather than staying 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 IEDs made everything perilous.  

One day, just after returning from a mission, Arroyo heard a loud explosion. Everyone grabbed their weapons and ran to respond. But soon the command came over the radio for everyone to stand down and report to the hospital. They knew that was bad news. He knew Command Master Sgt. Watts had just left the encampment with his soldiers on patrol.

“A medevac helicopter landed and turned off its engines,” Arroyo recalls. A sergeant walked out of the hospital and told the men to prepare to pay their last respects to Command Sgt. Major 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 recalls. “We just rendered a final salute. We watched as the helicopter crew got in, turned on the engines, and just flew away with Sergeant Major Watts’s body. And we’d lost our sergeant major.”

Take a moment to ponder the profound, ultimate sacrifice of selfless heroes like Command Sgt. Major Donovan Watts.

Honoring Veterans and Their Families

I referenced Lincoln earlier, and I’m reminded that as the 16th president gazed out over the rows of white headstones at Appomattox, he urged every American alive at that time to commit himself to ensuring those deaths were not in vain.

Toward that end, on June 8, my colleagues at CityServe will join a team from the advocacy group Voice of the Veteran and local churches in hosting a unique “Day of Gratitude” at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, 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 more than $3 million worth of 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?

Arroyo knows.

“Command Sgt. Major Watts would say that our service was not in vain,” he said, “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.”

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 Command Sgt. Major Watts and all the other brave heroes like him who believed America was well worth their ultimate sacrifice.

 

Former Army Col. Samuel Clear (Ret.) is the program manager for CityServe West Cook. He served as a Deputy G-3 in Kuwait and Chief Plans ARCENT in Afghanistan.

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