Joshua Watson slept in the back seat — plagued by nightmares — as the car hummed from Hamilton, Ohio, to Frederick County.
“We could hear him speaking out,” his mother, Norma Sechrist, said. “He was in anguish.”
He didn’t wake up until the car stopped at Jackie Bain’s house near Gainesboro late Wednesday.
Watson, 22, often has nightmares.
The car trip has less to do with a summer vacation than it does with a solemn visit to a grave. And the nightmares have little to do with fantasy.
In them, Watson returns to Iraq, where he served with the 4th Battalion of the 27th Field Artillery Regiment of the U.S. Army.
About eight months after his arrival in Iraq, Watson was in an ambush. It wasn’t his first, but the events of December 17, 2003, are locked in his mind.
It’s the day his friend died.
Watson, an Army specialist, was part of a group that had just pulled up at a Baghdad power station. The Iraqis working there had apparently heard word of a coming attack and had defensively barricaded the station, Watson said.
Small-arms fire came quickly. Rounds hit Watson’s Lieutenant, the group’s interpreter, and medic Christopher J. Holland.
Watson pulled the lieutenant behind a wall. Another soldier did the same for Holland. Watson and a fellow soldier helped the interpreter as well.
The lieutenant’s bulletproof vest saved him. The interpreter sustained serious leg wounds.
Holland was hit in the neck. He didn’t make it.
And Watson — who still carries some shrapnel remnants near his right eye from the ambush — didn’t get to say goodbye.
That’s why he traveled to his great-aunt’s house in Frederick County, only three weeks after leaving Iraq.
Watson plans on visiting Holland’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery today.
He’ll take a hat with him, adorned with replicas of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart awards, Holland’s unit crest, rank, and a simple message — “Thinking of You.”
Ten people in Watson’s battalion have died in Iraq, and he said he’ll try to get to all of their graves today, if he can.
At 22, he’s seen more than his share of death.
“It’s really tough,” he said, as tears welled up in his ice-blue eyes.
But he smiled remembering Holland, a Brunswick, Georgia, native everyone called “Doc.”
“He was one of the coolest guys,” Watson said. “So laid back — nothing ever got to him.”
Holland was a fun guy, someone to watch movies with, talk to, and take on in a game of basketball, Watson said.
“Everyone loved him,” Watson said.
Watson, who has 21/2 years of service left, went into the military looking for direction.
“I was heading nowhere,” he said, a dark, swirling tattoo peeking out from under the left arm of his bicycling jersey.
His great-aunt agreed, saying Watson was headed for trouble. But the service changed that.
“He’s shaped up into a real man,” Bain said.
Her great-nephew’s maturity has come at a price. When Watson returns to Germany later this month, an Army psychiatrist will help him deal with the repercussions of combat.
Rocket-propelled grenades shot through Humvees, ambushes, firefights, and riot control were part of life in Iraq, Watson said.
But love also was there, in spirit at least. Three months before shipping out to Iraq from a German base, Watson met his fiancée, Sabrina Korte.
Watson held her hand tightly as he spoke on Wednesday, and the two shared brief kisses whenever possible.
It’s hard for Korte, 23, to watch Watson’s pain.
“I can’t do nothing to help him beside just being there,” she said with a hint of an accent.
Sechrist said she feels a little helpless, too. But she also realizes she can only do so much.
“It’s something he has to work through,” Sechrist said.
Going to Holland’s grave is part of the early stages of her son’s healing, Sechrist believes.
“[But] it’s not going to be the finish of it,” she added.
But Watson wouldn’t change any of it, if only because his service brought him to Korte.
He’s happy right now to be with his friends, family, and fiancée. He knows that someday, his unit may head to Afghanistan.
But for now, he’s looking forward to fishing with his dad and granddad, and seeing other friends from the service, home on leave.
“Just being out of that environment [Iraq] is good,” he said.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard