EGLIN AFB, FL (Capt. Thomas Cieslak) – A Special Forces Vietnam veteran was presented with the nation’s second highest military award more than four decades after his heroism repelled an enemy attack while saving the lives of his fellow Americans.
Retired Army Master Sgt. Patrick N. Watkins Jr. was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross during a ceremony held May 22 at the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) compound on Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida.
“The legacy of men like Pat Watkins and so many others is a direct and vital link to our present,” wrote Brig. Gen. Michael Turello, commander of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command (Airborne) in an email regarding Watkins’ legacy in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces. “I am grateful to those who saw this award through as it further exemplifies a necessary commitment to never forgetting our soldiers and what they have accomplished in defense of our country and our allies.”
Watkins was a member of the famed Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group on Aug. 23, 1968 and serving as a staff sergeant with Headquarters, Headquarters Company, Command and Control North, 5th SFG (A), when the compound he was located at was attacked by a North Vietnamese sapper force.
Watkins, though wounded in the initial assault, quickly organized a small reaction force, repelling the attack and rescuing wounded Americans while leading them through machine gun fire and grenades to a safe location.
Throughout the engagement, Watkins continued to engage and kill sappers from the enemy force while repeatedly being wounded and is credited with fiercely charging and killing an onrushing NVA sniper.
Prior to the ceremony, Watkins and other MACV-SOG veterans were received by members of the 7th SFG (A) at the Group’s Compound where they observed a memorial conducted by the 1st Battalion to honor soldiers from the unit killed in Vietnam and Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
The MACV-SOG veterans spent the remainder of the day touring the compound and speaking with Green Berets of the 7th SFG (A) about their duties, equipment and recent missions.
The award ceremony, conducted in the group’s chapel, was attended by other Vietnam veterans of the MACV-SOG, Watkin’s family members and soldiers from the 7th SFG (A), some having just returned from combat operations in Afghanistan.
“The Special Forces Regiment of today stands on the shoulders of such giants as Watkins and his fellow MACV-SOG veterans. These veterans gathered here today, to include retired Master Sgt. Watkins, represent the history and heritage of the Special Forces as we know it,” said Col. Robert Kirila, the Deputy Commander of the 7th SFG (A). “These gentlemen are living national treasures and we can never thank them enough for their actions in Vietnam and the contributions they continue to make.”
Turello spoke after Kirila, describing the heritage today’s Army Special Forces draw from the actions and heroics of the MACV-SOG before pinning the medal on Watkins.
Watkins then took the stage to thundering applause from the hundreds gathered in the chapel.
During his remarks, Watkins, whose codename was “Mandolin,” recognized the fellow members of MACV-SOG in attendance, some of whom he served with in Vietnam. He spoke about a mission where his team, outnumbered and outgunned, was being pursued behind enemy lines. Watkins recalled when his teammate set a helicopter landing zone on fire with napalm to help facilitate the team’s extraction from that intense firefight.
We didn’t come home and beat our chests about the things we did, said Watkins as he reflected on the secrecy of MACV-SOG, its missions and soldiers. “When people asked about what we did, we said we were in Vietnam.”
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson’s (D-FL) office was instrumental in the effort to recognize Watkins. The senator and his staff, who have assisted in other efforts to recognize veterans, also received praise from Watkins for the help and service they gave him.