Hundreds of Fort Carson soldiers have returned home from deployment over the past several weeks. When your soldier comes home, some things can change. But at these welcome home ceremonies, one thing rarely does.
“Somewhere in the vicinity between 90 and 100,000 soldiers we’ve probably welcomed,” retired Army Lt. Col. Charles G. Watkins said.
“I just think I ought to be there to welcome these kids home,” he said.
Watkins is a veteran himself.
“Two days after school started, I got my draft notice,” Watkins said.
He was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
“We came home to a country that didn’t really appreciate us, number one,” Watkins said. “And we were spit at and called baby killers, and all kinds of nasty stuff. They threw stuff at us. It was not a good time.”
Watkins hopes these soldiers have a better time coming home than he did.
“‘There was some old grey-haired guy that showed up to say ‘Welcome home and thanks for your service,”” Watkins said. “That’s all I expect. I don’t really expect it, you know. But a lot of those kids will turn to me and thank me for my service and say ‘You guys led the way. If it wasn’t for the Vietnam veterans, we wouldn’t be getting treated the way we are today.”
What the soldiers may not know is the hand they’re shaking was the one flying some of the major commanders in Vietnam.
“Col. Patton didn’t like to fly with anybody but one pilot,” Watkins said.
Then-Col. George S. Patton IV, son of the Gen. Patton of WWII fame, called on Watkins to be his pilot.
“If we had a contact, then we went flying around in that,” Watkins said. “If we didn’t have a contact, he would tell me, ‘Charlie, find me a fight.”
Even if bullets didn’t hit him, the scars they left are still there.
“Charlie is the absolute epitome of resilience,” Watkins’ wife, Donna Watkins, said.
“Charlie is a disabled vet with severe PTSD and TBI,” she said. “And he faces those demons every day.”
The challenges Watkins and other veterans bring home oftentimes aren’t just theirs to deal with.
“It’s a tough transition for families to try and come to terms with the changes that they’re going to see,” Donna Watkins said.
The couple’s work didn’t end when Watkins’ 23-year career in the military did. Rather, it was just getting started.
“Nobody goes to war and comes home the same person,” Watkins said.
He and his wife have done a lot to smooth that transition.
“It was bothering me that we were sending kids off to combat, surviving combat, and coming home and committing suicide,” Watkins said. “And so I said ‘I have to move to Colorado Springs and get involved with these young kids.”
They moved from Craig, Colorado, to a home just minutes from Fort Carson.
“I was able to save several young kids that had the gun in their mouth more than once,” Watkins said.
While for many, coming home is a moment of joy, for others, it can be a moment of dread.
“We’ve seen about everything that can possibly happen at a welcome home,” Watkins said. “From wives walking out on the floor and handing the divorce papers to ’em, and with a restraining order, and ‘You cannot come home because my new boyfriend has moved into the house with me,’ you know.”
When they can help, the Watkinses always will.
“I’ve taken them all the way to La Junta, Colorado, I’ve taken them to Denver, I’ve taken them to Pueblo,” Watkins said.
Sometimes the best thing Watkins can bring them is a conversation from someone who’s been in their boots.
“I think they have more respect for somebody that’s been there, done that, and that has gone through what they are going through,” Watkins said.
While Watkins’ experiences can help young soldiers, Donna Watkins can help their families.
“I want to see these families stay together,” she said. “I want to see these families thrive and survive.”
“I tell them all that I took Charlie for better or for worse,” she said. “I didn’t know at times it could get that worse.”
“We didn’t have a perfect life, either,” Watkins said. “There’s always issues. But my wife and I have been together 56 years.”
“What we did years ago was take all the other options off the table,” Donna Watkins said. “So leaving and divorce and separating were never options. We had children. We were going to raise those children together, and we were going to grow old together.”
Watkins had some close calls in Vietnam.
“Five times, shot up where we had to land the aircraft because it was unsafe to fly,” Watkins said.
Other soldiers, back then and today, weren’t as fortunate to escape.
“Pulled out two dying soldiers, and on the way to the hospital, one of them told Col. Patton, reached up and grabbed his hand, said, ‘Don’t let people forget who we are. And take care of our kids,'” Watkins said. “So in 1970, we started the Blackhorse Association.”
Since its founding, the association has given more than $1 million in scholarships for children of fallen soldiers.
“Their families all deserve more credit than they ever get, because the family sometimes really has to shoulder a lot of the burden,” Donna Watkins said.
“There’s more need out there than all of us can solve,” Watkins said. “There really is. And so if you can help somebody by, you need to do that.”