Summit Co. injured soldier now battling the Army |

Summit Co. injured soldier now battling the Army

Duffy Hayes
Summit County Correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the DailySgt. Rich Watson has brain injuries that he received while serving in Iraq.

FORT LEWIS, WASHINGTON ” During his 10-year Army career, Sgt. Rich Watson has seen his share of firefights and combat missions. He’s been nearly blown to shreds. Bullets have grazed his head. More than once, he’s selflessly rushed into a hot zone to carry out a wounded soldier.

But today, he can’t even stand in the shower.

“His future is that he is going to be disabled ” for life,” said Sharon Jones-Bird, Watson’s mother who lives in Frisco. “But Rich, being the man that he is, will always try to make the best of his situation.”

While Watson rehabilitates at his home in Fort Lewis, Wash., from his alphabet-soup list of injuries ” PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), mTBI (mild traumatic brain injury), MCS (multiple concussion syndrome), among others ” Jones-Bird wonders if people really understand the plight of many modern-day American soldiers.

“Rich says people need to know about what’s going on with our soldiers. They need to know that when they are injured and they come home, the battles that they have to face ” not only with their injuries but with their disabilities, their lives,” she said.

Watson’s story isn’t an uncommon one. One recent study by the Army showed that up to 20 percent of returning soldiers and Marines were suffering from mild traumatic brain injuries.

Today, Watson’s story is of a once-courageous and heroic warrior who now battles moment to moment just to maintain a fragile, eggshell sanity.

“We were rolling on a patrol to do not much of anything when we got a radio call that some Blackwater boys were in a large firefight somewhere close to us and had sustained casualties. … As we got closer it turned out to be that their little bird had been shot down and they had fought and been overwhelmed by insurgents ” beaten, stripped and dragged from the crash site through the alleys and executed right out on the main street, left there to be used as bait for a hasty ambush. … What we found was horrible. All four had been brutally shot up and executed. Stripped of all their gear and weapons ” blood all over them. The image of them is burned into my brain and I see it every time I close my eyes.”

” Rich Watson, diary entry written soon after battle

Watson recently turned 32, passing a 10-year milestone as a soldier in the U.S. Army. He’s been deployed three times ” completing one six-month mission in Kosovo, and doing two long tours in Iraq. In Iraq, Watson was a sergeant leading combat missions in a Stryker-armored vehicle unit.

“His job was to make sure his guys stayed alive,” Jones-Bird matter-of-factly explained.

Watson’s Stryker unit would go out for six days at a time sometimes, 18 to 20 hours a day, going door-to-door in the worst conditions in the most dangerous neighborhoods imaginable.

“You live for the men to your left and to your right ” you live for your squad. And as a squad leader, the lives of nine dudes are in your hands. They can live or die by your decisions,” Watson said.

Countless missions, though, have taken a toll. By his count, Watson has had 10 major concussions ” the source of his struggles today. His 10th concussion happened back home in Washington; barely bumping his head on a car door, he soon conked out cold.

The story of Watson’s ninth concussion, however, better explains his true character and career.

“On patrol, to simply watch over the main (road) to prevent the insurgents from utilizing the route under the hours of darkness, we were sitting there watching and suddenly a huge explosion off the side of the vehicle. First we thought mortars, perhaps a rifle grenade. … I walked over to report the actions to the LT, who was busy with his own escalation of force measure … As I walked up, an explosion rocked my world and I opened my eyes only to realize I was face down on the pavement, I looked around to see if everyone was OK. I saw two men down right where the explosion was. I ran to the first one and grabbed his drag handle, not realizing that rounds were still exploding all around me. I could hear nothing, feel nothing, just the feeling that he was in bad shape. … Then, trying to return (back to base), we loaded the stretcher in and everyone piled in the trucks to get back to base. … As the ramp came down I took a step off but couldn’t find my balance. I took a knee, then things went all blurry.”

” Watson, diary entry written soon after battle

Watson calls the incident of his ninth concussion “the straw” that finally broke him. It should have been traumatic enough to earn him a ticket home. What Watson encountered though was an Army culture that downplayed injury at every turn, and commanders more concerned about returning soldiers to the battlefield as soon as possible ” physical and emotional ailments be damned.

One superior accused him of faking the unending headaches, and labeled Watson a “a malingerer” in his official file. Another called him a “pussy.” He would often throw up, and couldn’t eat. He lost some 20 pounds. For six weeks after the incident, Watson was in agony. Field doctors did not order a CAT scan, he said. And even though Watson was taken off the front lines and given a desk job, he obviously had no business being in Iraq.

“If you’re not bleeding or you’re not missing pieces, they just kind of stick you back out into the field,” Watson said. “They just don’t know how to treat all of the brain injuries.”

Watson would probably still be in Iraq ” in agony ” if it wasn’t for some familial and congressional intervention.

Keeping in sporadic contact with Watson about his situation, Jones-Bird realized she needed to do something to draw attention to Rich’s plight. She reached someone in U.S. Rep. Mark Udall’s office (who represents Summit and Eagle counties in Congress), and inquired about the possibility of a “welfare check” ” where Udall’s office would officially request someone check up on Watson. While it seems obvious now, Jones-Bird wrestled with the decision to make such an official intervention.

“It’s like your mommy is checking up on you,” she said. “But I was so concerned that he wasn’t getting the kind of care that he needed.”

When she decided to pull the trigger, things began happening fast. Two days after telling congressional aide Carolyn Boller to “go for it,” Watson was seen by doctors, helicoptered off to holding, flown to Germany, and was back in the states four days after that.

Watson’s quick trip out of Iraq is probably the only sunny detail of his story, though. Days now are decidedly dark for him.

His wife of two-and-a-half years, Tonya, is his lifeline now. Rich requires nearly constant attention, but there are also two children they’re raising that likely do too. Rich also has an autistic son from a previous marriage, but he can’t be much a father in his present condition. Tonya now can’t work because of all the responsibility.

“(Tonya) does so much. I could never tell her how much I appreciate her. I couldn’t begin to start,” Watson said.

He battles nightmares and flashbacks ” ailments that would cripple him if it wasn’t for the many meds he has to take. He has meds for the chronic pain, too, and his vision is deteriorating by the day. He just had bilateral hernia surgery, and he still suffers from three bulging discs in his back. His vertigo is unbearable at times.

The bigger battle Watson is fighting today is against the Army bureaucracy; the Army will soon decide to retire him, or offer him a severance to just “go away,” Watson said.

Soldiers across the country are having to defend their new disabilities, to get the security they absolutely need for them and their families. Their struggles can be counted by the exploding number of class-action suits that have been filed by returning soldiers across the country.

“I do not regret anything that has happened to me, nor do I have anger over it. The only thing I wish is that I could be the man I used to be for my wife and for my three children. I’ve proudly served my country, fought hard and long, countless days and nights, doing what I came to love. The memories of those who did not make it home will forever be a part of me. God bless those men and women still in harm’s way and the families who stand behind them. I pray they all come home soon.”

” Rich Watson, recently.

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