Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Trading Congress for the Marine Corps

Illinois Rep. Jim Watson, R-Jacksonville, admires a farewell greeting during a Republican County fundraising dinner in Jacksonville, Ill. Watson is going off to war. The 42-year-old spent his last week in Illinois by taking care of the last minute details before his deployment to Iraq.

By Nguyen Huy Vu - The Associated Press
Posted : Monday Jan 21, 2008 7:53:14 EST

JACKSONVILLE, Ill. — Jim Watson is going to war, and that means taking care of details familiar to any Marine: updating his will, packing his duffel bags, saying goodbye.

Then there are a few unusual chores, like figuring out how to raise campaign money while in Iraq and arranging for other lawmakers to watch over his legislative district while he’s away.

Watson is a staff sergeant in the Marine Reserves, but he’s also a Republican member of the state House, representing a swath of farmland and small towns in central Illinois.

He leaves Sunday to train in Camp Pendleton, Calif. When he arrives in Iraq a few weeks later, Watson will become one of just 23 state legislators deployed overseas by the military over the past four years, according to a survey done last summer for the National Network of Legislators in the Military.

The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates Watson will be one of five state legislators currently deployed in Iraq.
Watson, 42, expects to be shipped to Al-Anbar, Iraq, and spend nine months working with local leaders to strengthen their government.

He’ll miss his son’s 14th birthday and his youngest daughter’s tumbling meets. He’ll also miss the spring legislative session, leaving his district without a vote in the House, a situation that irritates some constituents.

“I hope that people in the district look at that and say, ‘That’s a sacrifice we can live with so that he can do what he’s doing,’” he said. “If that’s not the case, then I am not the right guy. This is important to me, and I hope that is important to them.”

Watson already has served overseas once.

He started his military career in 1985 with the Marine Corps. He returned to active duty in 1990 and served in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for seven months with a combat engineering unit as part of Operation Desert Storm.

Watson started thinking about re-enlisting in 2005. His pangs to return to active duty grew as he watched his old unit being sent to Iraq three times. Two of them died.

“You get into this because you have a sense of duty, and just because you take the uniform off doesn’t mean that sense of duty is put in the closet with it. It’s still there,” Watson said. “And so when these things flare up you find yourself saying, ‘I should be there, I can help.”’

Last summer, he signed up for the reserves again, joining a civil affairs unit that could use his experience in government.

He got word around Christmas that he was being shipped to Iraq.

Watson spent the last few weeks raising money, voting on legislation and trying to make time for his family. “It’s complicated to put it all together, but it’s coming together,” he said.

More than 200 supporters packed a banquet room Monday night to wish Watson luck during an annual political fundraiser that doubled as a farewell party. They lined up to shake his hand and promise to take his son hunting or invite his youngest daughter to sleepovers.

The next day it was back to business. Watson wants to make sure his district isn’t forgotten by state officials while he’s gone. He plans to keep in touch through e-mail, and other representatives from both parties have promised to visit the district.

Watson caught heat from a few constituents and local papers because he can’t vote while serving in Iraq. He understands the concern, and it’s one reason he delayed re-enlisting. But he doesn’t consider it a crisis that the district will be without a vote for 270 days. If he served any longer, Pentagon policy would require him to give up his political office.

Watson sits with advisers over pork loin and cornbread as they try to tie up loose ends. Have they thought of everything? Are the office hours covered? Do we have the right reps? Is the right staff in place?

Next, they head over to his campaign headquarters a few yards away and discuss how to stay visible through blogging, e-mails and video teleconferencing. The group then tosses ideas around about moneymaking strategies.

Watson listens intently and struggles to swallow a few yawns.

An hour later he picks up his youngest daughter. Recently divorced, Watson usually gets the kids once a week but he has the entire week with them before he ships off.

The hardest part was telling the kids. Katie, 16, Jacob, 13, and Lexie, 9, gathered around at Watson’s Jacksonville duplex when he told them the news. Katie and Lexie had the toughest time. They couldn’t stop crying.

Jacob sat quietly. He began to ask questions. If you have to go, where will you be? How long are you going to be there? What kind of gun are going to carry?

Jacob said he is disappointed that his dad has to go.

“I really don’t have a choice, I have to accept it because he’s already going and you can’t turn back,” Jacob says.

His children were the main reason it took so long to commit to the service.

“There’s nobody that can replace your parents,” Watson says. “Missing some games, missing tumbling meets, missing a swim meet, not being able to help them on a test, not being there to help out their mother. She’s got to carry this load and that’s tough.”

While Watson helps Jacob study for a Spanish test, there is a knock at the door. It’s a stranger. The man introduces himself and, out of the blue, offers to help any way he can while Watson is away.

Watson thanks the man. Then he simply grins.

Just visiting my blogger friends and found this story is also at Lubbock Marine Parents!


Buck said...

Wow. What a story! Gives me hope, however faint, about our politicos.

Thanks, Cynthia!

Claire said...

What an awesome story! Oh, if only all members of Congress had to spend a few years in the military... I bet decisions about budgetary items would shift drastically! :)

De'on Miller said...

And don't we need some budget decisions, pronto!

This was a great post and I concur with the top comment wholeheartedly!

Anonymous said...

When my nephew left his studies at California Maritime Academy to spend a year in Iraq with his reserve unit we all went to the armory to see them off. There were only a few people there. The Lake Co. Sherrif's Dept. came with spare body armor. I'm glad someone from our family went to Iraq as a soldier to really support our troops by being one.