July always reminds me of the joys of summer training at Fort Benning. If you don't know, running around Fort Benning in the summer time is awful warm. Two of my summers during college were dominated by the heat and humidity of our military partner on the south end of town. There really is nothing like double-timing around the Georgia countryside while someone is yelling at you.
Summers around here especially make me think of Airborne School. I’ve written about jumping out of airplanes once before, but this year brings some special memories to mind. A family friend passed away in late May — retired Lt. Col. Joe Watson. I will always associate Joe with being Airborne. He was a Master Parachutist with four combat jumps. You won’t find many people wandering around who have four mass tactical combat jumps.
I learned this when I first met Joe thanks to my parents who had become friends with Joe and his wife, Mae. I was assigned at Fort Bragg. Joe gave me an old set of his jump wings with four stars. “Wow!” comes to mind but is so lacking as a tribute to honor such service. Joe jumped with the 82d Airborne Division on D-Day and Operation Market Garden in World War II. He then made two jumps in Korea.
I remember that Joe mentioned a lieutenant who was killed on D-Day. The lieutenant was standing in the door ready to lead his men out of the aircraft when he was hit in the chest by a bullet or fragment. He overcame the shock and pain and yelled to his men to “Follow me!” as he pulled himself up and leapt out the door.
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I believe that this was Lt. Robert Mathias mentioned in Stephen Ambrose’s book titled “D-Day June 6, 1944.” So nowadays when I think about how hot it is in July and when I think about Airborne soldiers, I remember the testament to courage that is exemplified by Lt. Mathias.
Joe Watson certainly felt the inspiration as did the remainder of the men who followed Mathias out the door that night. Joe continued to serve in the Army and received a direct commission while in Korea. He also fought in Vietnam and was a member of the Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning. Joe got around, as most everyone who stays in the Army does.
The training at Fort Benning certainly has produced its fair share of tough combat leaders. The young soldiers serving today in Iraq and Afghanistan have had ample opportunities to display the same fortitude and courage of the soldiers who preceded them. Whenever the weather is uncomfortable, all of us should think about those soldiers who are carrying out their duties regardless of the challenges they face. It gets hot in Iraq in the summer. While I haven’t been to Afghanistan, I imagine it’s hot there, too.
We Americans are fortunate to have had great soldiers like Robert Mathias and Joe Watson keeping us safe in the past. We’re also fortunate to have the magnificent young soldiers who are keeping us safe today.