Nate Watson, a Pickens native, with the Purple Heart he was awarded after being wounded in Afghanistan. Watson nows helps other veterans with Georgia’s Wounded Heroes, a group he co-founded.
After receiving both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor for action in Afghanistan, Pickens County native Nate Watson has returned to Georgia to co-found an organization that will help other wounded veterans as well as police and firefighters.
Watson, the son of Mike and Janie Watson of Jasper, graduated from Pickens High in 1997 and from North Georgia College in 2001. He worked in law enforcement for Cherokee County before deploying to northern Afghanistan in 2009.
Watson said while serving as a gunner in a mounted combat patrol in Afghanistan, his team was shot at regularly but had never been in a full-fledged firefight until August of 2009.
It was then that Specialist Watson, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, was assigned to escort election materials in a convoy of U.S. vehicles and Afghan National Police.
Watson’s job was to man the .50 caliber machine gun on top of the armored vehicle. The convoy was ambushed and insurgents swarmed over the top of a hill around the vehicles. Watson said he and the other gunners shot numerous insurgents trying to reach the vehicles. Watson said he was amazed at how they just kept coming even as they were mowing them down.
The first three Watson saw and shot had run up to the vehicles trying to shoot out tires. But, the vehicles used that day had tires that do not deflate when punctured, so they were able to keep going.
Watson said he knew he’d been hit in the forearm, but initially didn’t think it was a serious wound. He maintained his post and kept firing, even as the medic was telling him he needed to get down.
Eventually Watson realized how much blood he had lost and switched places with the driver. With the driver now manning the gun, Watson was able to drive to a base.
The narrative for his Bronze Star Medal commended him saying, “SPC Watson’s personal courage and selfless service not only contributed directly to the mission success but prevented insurgents from disrupting election operations allowing Afghans in Ta Gab District the ability to participate in the 2009 Presidential Election.”
Watson said he was treated in Afghanistan by Medic Gary Hancock (who is now a Pickens Deputy). He was then flown to Germany and on to the states for rehabilitation of his injury. Watson said his wound to the forearm was not thought to be particularly bad. However, four years later he still can not move the fingers on his left hand due to nerve damage.
“At first I was mad at the world,” he said. “The doctor said I would make a full recovery but that never happened. It was hard being a normal active guy going to a guy with a hand that doesn’t work.”
Watson said he got the inspiration to get involved with helping other wounded soldiers from his nurse/case manager at Fort Gordon. Watson said he considered himself lucky his wounds weren’t worse considering what he saw with other soldiers.
“I said that was the best-worst day of my life. If the bullet had been a few inches higher it would have hit me in the neck,” he said
Watson said he also dealt with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and some survivor’s guilt that he was back home and his unit was still there.
“It was terrible that I got shot, but it gave me a vision of something for the future – a way to give back,” he said.
Watson co-founded Georgia’s Wounded Heroes with Brian Brakefield, a veteran and a former Clayton County Police Officer. Their group gives funds directly to military and public safety employees who are facing financial challenges. All the money stays in Georgia and the group operates without any large administration costs.
Among the projects they have undertaken was helping a Clayton Police Officer already struggling with cancer when he was run over while on duty by a fleeing suspect.
They have worked to renovate a Jackson home in conjunction with Home Depot for an Afghanistan veteran who lost a leg.
Georgia’s Wounded Heroes continues to hold regular events to raise money, including a recent archery tournament and a golf tournament.
There is a serious need to help wounded veterans, starting with a misconception among servicemen of what they will make through disability, according to Watson.
Watson, who retired officially from the military in 2011, said, “A lot of guys think that when they retire with disability they will get much more.” He said someone on 100 percent disability would only be eligible for about $2,000 a month – an amount not likely to ever seriously rise. Most of the guys coming back injured are young and the amounts they are given aren’t enough to really plan a future.
He said it’s troubling to see statistics showing a massive unemployment problem with veterans and the number of vets from earlier wars now homeless.
As part of the mission of Georgia’s Wounded Heroes, they will go to the hospital when they see news of servicemen or public safety personnel who are injured or needing help.
Watson said being shot and the recent birth of a son had completely changed him.
“I went to Afghanistan a trained killer, but now I want to give back to guys coming back.”
To find out more, donate or suggest a hero, see their website at georgiaswoundedheroes.org.