By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
IRVING — Tom Watters Sr. said he didn’t know what to expect on the autumn day in 1961 when he and fellow members of the U.S. Army Special Forces got word to gather in a field near Fort Bragg, N.C.
They knew only that they were to await the arrival of the Commander in Chief, who had something for each of them.
“When you’re in the military, you’re a little suspicious when someone with a higher rank is coming to present you with something,” Watters said with a laugh on a recent morning at the Irving Knights of Columbus Hall, where he and fellow knights from Council 5243 reminisced about their military service as Veterans Day, on Nov. 11, approached. “All we knew was that the President was coming in a helicopter to present us with something.”
Watters saw a truck arrive with a load of boxes. But not until President John F. Kennedy presented the soldiers with the boxes’ contents did the full meaning hit him, Watters said.
“It was a Green Beret,” he said in an even, thoughtful tone as he reflected on the 53-year-old memory. “We were really proud of it.”
President Kennedy authorized the wearing of the Green Beret in recognition of the importance of an elite command and special counter-insurgency forces, according to Army News Service.
Watters, a former Grand Knight of Council 5243 and a parishioner at St. Luke Catholic Church in Irving, said that he also is proud to belong to the Knights because the organization embodies faithful service.
“We value our God and our country,” Watters said. “I think that veterans and their families have added a lot to the country and to the Knights.”
The U.S. Army Special Forces had existed formally for just seven years when Watters enlisted for the special operations force in 1959.
“I wondered if I’d done the right thing,” said Watters, who grew up in a big Catholic family in Wisconsin and has lived in Irving for 44 years. “The training was ongoing and very intense. But it’s easier to do when you don’t know what’s ahead of you.”
Special Forces members could be on a plane and know they were flying over water, but not know which body of water.
They could know they were headed somewhere, but not know where.
Political tensions and controversies of the early 1960s, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, occurred during Watters’ service years.
“That probably was where some of my white hair comes from,” he said with a smile.
Watters, 74, and his wife, June, have four children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
He laughed when he described how his grandchildren so loved his Green Beret that June had to find a hiding place for it.
Fellow Knights and service veterans Ray Reynolds and Ed Jones said that Watters’ leadership qualities made him an excellent Grand Knight.
They said that they share special memories that gain momentum each Veterans Day.
Reynolds, who is Council 5243’s historian, said that he recalls his boyhood in a family that unfailingly observed each Nov. 11, which marked the armistice of World War I in 1918.
“It was always a special day,” said Reynolds, who served in the U.S. Air Force as a crew chief on a B-36. “My parents would stop and have a moment of silence.”
Jones, who was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, said that he recalls the elation of soldiers returning after World War II to a train station in Buffalo, N.Y., when he was about 11.
“We all do think about our service on Veterans Day,” Watters said. “Some of the protest years put a dent in morale when you were told that you couldn’t wear your uniform. Now, we’ve gone back to honoring our veterans.”