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News & Record, April 24, 2003

Watkins's Death Confirmed
Family Announces Fate Of Missing Airman, Calling Him 'An Example To All'

Family members of Lt. Col. (select) William R. Watkins, III, confirmed yesterday that he died on Sunday, April 6, 2003 at approximately 7:50 p.m. EST. At the time he was flying in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in an F-15E Strike Eagle and was completing a bombing mission in a hostile area in Northern Iraq when his airplane went down. The Air Force has yet to determine the cause of the crash.

Watkins was a 1984 graduate of Woodberry Forest High School and a 1989 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He served his first 12 years in the United States Navy as a Naval Flight Officer in the A-6E Intruder and F-14A Tomcat. In June 2001, he transferred to the United States Air Force as a Weapon Systems Officer in the F-15E Strike Eagle and was stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, NC. He was recently selected to assume the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was due to pin on in the coming year.

Watkins made his home in Goldsboro, NC with his wife, Major Melissa Watkins, an Intelligence Officer also stationed at Seymour Johnson AFB and their ten month old son, William. The couple, who were married in Halifax on May 23, 1998 at St. John's Episcopal Church, is expecting their second child in August.

The family released a statement yesterday saying "Bill's love of God, country, family and life to the fullest was an example for all. He cherished every friendship and relationship in his life and was truly an inspiration to our family, friends, fellow servicemen and to all who knew him. We are truly grateful for the love, support and prayers for us in this time of loss and sorrow. We hold dear the wonderful memories of Bill, and we are comforted that he is with His Lord and Savior now, and we know that we will be united with him again.

"Bill's legacy will continue in the lives of his two children as it will in the memories that each of us holds dear of this truly caring and loving man. We have always been and will continue to be proud to have known him even for this very short time," the family said.

"I'm sure the whole community is upset," said Gen. Carroll Thackston, a family friend, when it was first learned that Watkins was missing. "His grandfather, Dr. (William) Watkins was very prominent here. He and his wife Ruth were what I'd call cream of the crop as far as South Boston citizens go," Thackston said.

Amy Moore Collins, a longtime friend of Watkins who is now married and living in Roanoke, said upon learning of the plane having been downed that she had known that Watkins was serving in the Middle East.

"I got a letter and a picture from him a few weeks ago. He didn't say where he was, just 'an undisclosed location in the desert.'" She found out that Watkins was missing after getting a call from a friend in town.

"He's a sweet guy," said Mrs. Collins, "just a really sweet guy."

According to Mrs. Collins, Watkins developed a love for flying as a teenager and followed that love into the military.

"He went into the Navy flying and then switched to the Air Force. That's how he met his wife, they both loved flying."

According to Mrs. Collins, Watkins long planned to make the military a career, because it allowed him to pursue his love of flying and because of his love for his country.

"He is patriotic and believed in what we were doing," said Mrs. Collins. "He always wanted to be in the military. He always planned on it being his career. That's just what he wanted to do."

Watkins' relatives living in the area include an uncle, Tucker Watkins, two aunts, Louise Moore and Porter Thrift, and a step-mother, Hollis Cannon. He is the son of the late William Watkins and Amy Atkins, now living in Danville.

A memorial service will be held in Goldsboro, NC and a final burial in South Boston with the dates yet to be determined. In lieu of flowers, an educational account has been established for his children at Branch Banking & Trust Company, 435 N. Berkley Blvd., Goldsboro, NC 27533.

Late last week the military reported that the remains of an Air Force pilot who had been missing since his F-15E fighter jet went down in Iraq on April 6 had been recovered and identified as Capt. Eric B. Das, 30, of Amarillo, Texas. At that time the military would not identify the other crew member as Watkins, adding only that the whereabouts of the second crew member were still unknown.

The fighter jet was reported to have been shot down near Tikrit, although the Pentagon has never publicly confirmed that. Das and his wife, 1st Lt. Nikki Das were both deployed to the Persian Gulf for the Iraq war.

Additional comments published in the Gazette-Virginian, April 25, 2003:

Mary Garrett Watkins, the airman's sister, offered the following memories of her brother: "My brother was one of the most loyal and generous people I've ever known. He was a wonderful father, husband and brother. He will be missed by all who knew him." She said her brother truly enjoyed the life he lived.

"He loved flying," she said. "He's wanted to fly as long as I can remember. As a child, our dad took us to air shows and he never wanted to leave.

"There aren't many people who knew what they wanted to do with their life when they were five," she said. "My brother did."

But one thing stood out in her mind - "Not only was he a gentleman, he was a gentle man."

Tucker Watkins, an aide to U.S. Sen. George Allen and the airman's uncle, said yesterday that the family "had hoped for a couple of weeks the outcome might be different."

"We were fortunate to have him 37 years," said Tucker Watkins. "And he was a fortunate man to find the wonderful wife he did, she has been a strength throughout this."

"He (Watkins) did not view himself as a warrior," Tucker Watkins said. "He felt it was what he needed to do to give his children and wife safety. He didn't go into war in anger, he went out of duty."

Sen. George Allen offered words of comfort to the family. "Major Watkins is a courageous airman, husband and father who lost his life and his future so that our families can now live in greater security and freedom," Allen said. "Our hearts ache for the tragic loss they will have to endure without their husband and father."

William Powell, a lifelong friend of the airman's, remembers his friend's loyalty, "always connecting" wherever life's journey took the two old friends. "William was a true friend," Powell said, adding that he didn't expect to experience another friendship like theirs.

"Honor" is the word Elizabeth Robertson Wetmore, a family friend, associates with Watkins. "He was intelligent and kind," she added.