Monday, May 28, 2012

Take Time to Remember

Against backdrop of Memorial Day, Wheaton couple prepare to bury their serviceman son

May 29, 2012

While the nation marked Memorial Day on Monday, Susan and Thomas Watts prepared to bury their son, Army Spc. Samuel T. Watts, who died earlier this month in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center of injuries he sustained from a improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

"We're proud of him. And I know he would be honored with all the things that people are saying and doing. He would be humbled," said Susan Watts, 50, of Wheaton. "But it's hard for me. He was still my little boy."

Across the region, people celebrated the Memorial Day holiday with backyard barbecues, the laying of flowers at grave sites, parades and parties. In Grant Park, a group of veterans and families laid wreaths at the Gen. John A. Logan Monument.

But the visceral, heart-wrenching reality of the holiday — enacted to remember those who died while serving in the military — has just come home for the Watts family.

On April 25, Samuel Watts, 20, was on a foot patrol in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device detonated. Watts had been about 8 feet from the blast, and he suffered devastating wounds, including head, arm and lung injuries. "We were told he was in cardiac arrest in the field," his mother said.

He was rushed to a hospital at Bagram Air Field; airlifted to Landstuhl, Germany; and then brought to Walter Reed in Maryland, where his family stood vigil for two weeks. Before he died May 19, he was awarded the Purple Heart in a ceremony held at his bedside. His father, Thomas, pinned the medal to his chest.

"The thing about my son, he was so strong," said Susan Watts. "He was strong in stature. He was strong in who he was. He was a young man of character."

Samuel Watts was a strapping young man, who stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and who, in his role as an Army specialist, often volunteered to carry extra equipment.

"Sam probably had an additional 90 pounds of gear on him. But he never complained. He was proud of the fact he was able to do that," said Susan Watts.

At Wheaton North High School, he had been average student, but he loved history, especially the stories from World War II. Growing up, he idolized a great-uncle who had been wounded on Omaha Beach, had been taken from the battle but later returned to fight in the rest of the war.

"Sam admired him so much. That's the kind of man he wanted to be," Susan Watts said.

Samuel Watts had enlisted while still in high school. He had wanted to be a soldier since he was a little boy.

This Memorial Day, the family stayed close to home and tried to prepare for Tuesday's visitation and Wednesday's funeral.

"For the moment, we're so lost in our grief," said Susan Watts. "There's no sleep. When I eat, I get sick. ... I just really want to lie down and wake up from this terrible nightmare."

The family has been pulling out photos, which they plan to display at the wake and memorial service. But Susan Watts said she has trouble looking at the pictures of her son. "I just miss that face so bad. It's hard to know he's never coming home."

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