He did not make it home
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 28, 2013 1:50 AM
A deployed Air Force aviator is caught, by his comrades, watching a video inside a room used for mission planning.
His 11-month-old son had just learned to walk.
"I think he had just gotten it in the mail," the airman's wife, Melissa, said. "He was just sitting there ... watching William -- laughing. He loved him. He thought he was the coolest thing in the world."
Bill Watkins had no idea that those images would be the last he would see of his first-born child -- that within a few weeks, his F-15E Strike Eagle would go down during a combat mission over Iraq; that less than a month after he watched that video of a "wobbly" toddler, the Department of Defense would officially change his status from missing to killed in action.
He had no way of knowing that he would never get to lay eyes on his daughter, Mary Allison -- that shortly after her birth she would witness a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery that she would be far too young to remember.
Bill was just a boy when he decided he wanted to pursue a career in aviation.
"He was one of those kids that got a ride in a little airplane ... and was bit by the bug," Melissa said. "After that, his whole world revolved around flying."
So when he graduated high school, he decided to attend the Naval Academy.
Seven years later, he signed up to participate in an exchange program that would land him at an Air Force base.
He ended up in Goldsboro -- and the cockpit of a 4th Fighter Wing F-15E.
But Seymour Johnson Air Force Base would end up offering him far more than an opportunity to train in one of the premier fighter jets in the U.S. military's inventory.
It was there that he would meet the woman he would later marry.
Melissa was drawn to Bill's laid back personality and his intellect -- to the fact that they could "actually have a meaningful conversation."
And because she worked inside the unit he was assigned to, the 335th Fighter Squadron, she was at peace with the notion of being in a relationship with someone the military demanded so much of.
"I guess it was just an easy relationship," she said. "You know, we knew what each other did and so there was a comfort level there. And I knew what it took (to be an aviator) ... so I didn't get upset if he had to fly late -- stuff like that."
In 1998, after both had left Seymour, they decided to get married.
"He pretty much planned the wedding," Melissa said. "We did it in bits and pieces over the phone."
And as the end of Bill's stint as a Navy navigator drew near, he decided, for the sake of his relationship, to join the Air Force.
"We wanted to try to make it work together," Melissa said. "And since he already had experience in the Strike Eagle, it was easy to get the Air Force to say, 'Yeah. We'll take you.'"
The couple returned to Goldsboro in 2001.
Within a few weeks, Melissa was pregnant.
Their dreams of a shared life -- of a family -- were, at last, coming true.
In February 2003, Bill's country came calling.
He was assigned to the 335th and he and other aviators were deployed to a base in Southwest Asia to fly combat missions over Iraq.
"Up until then, we weren't really doing a whole lot. We were going and doing the no-fly zone thing," Melissa said. "So when they decided that we needed to go over there and put Saddam Hussein out of his misery ... at that point, the Chiefs ... it was kind of their turn."
Melissa didn't fight it.
She knew the opportunity to serve meant too much to her husband.
"I could have cried foul and said, 'No. I've got an infant and I'm pregnant.' And that was the big thing. He was like, 'Are you sure you want me to go?'" she said. "I said, 'Well, yeah. You've trained your whole life to go fly in combat.' You know, now, the guys do it all the time. At that point, he had been in the Navy for 12 years and had never dropped a bomb."
The couple last communicated April 6, 2003, via e-mail.
"I think it was about the Jeep," Melissa said. "It was something innocuous -- random chat."
And then, a knock fell on her door.
"The vice wing commander shows up ... in his flight suit," she said. "They didn't want me to find out through the grapevine. I mean, while they were gone, I knew what they were hitting. I knew exactly where they were dropping bombs. I knew everything. As an intel officer, that was my job."
But it was not until that officer showed up at her home that she "kind of knew" that Bill was never coming home.
"You always think that maybe there is a possibility," she said. "But then, more time passes and it becomes something you have to deal with."
Melissa admits she had her "low points."
But she still had 11-month-old William to look after -- and was six months pregnant with Mary Allison.
"It was an emotional roller coaster," she said. "It really was."
Every so often, Bill reveals himself in his son's intelligence -- in the looks that often grace the boy's face.
"He strikes the pose very well," Melissa said, looking at William. "And Mary Allison's got his eyes. They both look like him. They get looks on their faces and say certain things. So I get a glimpse."
And when they look skyward, each member of the Watkins family feels his presence.
Bill, they believe, is their "guardian angel."
The Air Force has never officially said just what caused his F-15E to go down during that mission near Tikrit.
"They were going in and dropping bombs and they were being fired at by something," Melissa said. "But they still haven't (said). There was no investigation."
But the airman's wife knows two things for sure -- that her husband died doing what he loved, what he was called to do.
"He knew what was at stake," she said. "He knew that someday, we were going to have to deal with it on our own soil if we didn't take care of the problem."
And that he has been with his family ever since.
"I'm a person of faith and things happen for a reason whether I like it or not," Melissa said. "But I know he's in Heaven -- and the kids know he's watching them."