Buck Watford was aware a large assembly was taking place inside the R. Marion Craig Coliseum at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School.
He just wasn’t aware the gathering was to honor him.
Watford was welcomed home from yet another overseas deployment last week during an emotional 45-minute ceremony.
Watford, now a Major with the U.S. Army Reserves, arrived home last week after roughly a year in Afghanistan. Watford has spent just shy of four full years in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan since the events of 9/11 more than 11 years ago.
“He went to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan and he did that for us,” said Kesley Colbert to the assembled students, who spent nearly as much time standing and applauding during the welcome home as sitting.
“I don’t think we understand the honor today that we owe Buck Watford. He has sacrificed for you, for your children, for your grandchildren. We can’t thank him enough.”
But the students and staff at the high school sure did try.
There were plenty of opportunities to stand and applaud, there were speakers and the television production class produced a moving video – scored by the song “American Soldier” – including students shouting a welcome back and photos of Watford and his family.
Colbert first met Watford when the latter was an up-and-coming baseball coach at Carrabelle High School. Within a year or so, Watford would be coaching at Port St. Joe High School.
Colbert recalled a young man who knew baseball and, more importantly, knew how to relate that knowledge to teenagers, to teach the game and having fun with the game.
“I thought here is a man who can not only coach, but he loves young people,” Colbert said. “What an honor to watch him work with young people.
“But he got a higher calling. He loved America. To give that up, coaching, teaching, leaving his family behind, and stand in that gap for you and I, well, that is pretty special.”
Watford, however, has never been one to see what he was doing as special, only what anybody who joined the military, reserve or active, would do.
“It is just what we do,” Watford said when asked how he was managing the multiple deployments. “When you are in the Reserves when they call you go.
“The going is not the thing that it hard, it is the leaving that is hard.”
Turned out the arriving was nearly as difficult as Watford spent much of the 45 minutes wiping tears from his face.
“I am not sure which was tougher, a year deployment or sitting and listening the last 45 minutes,” Watford said. “I am very honored.”
Watford was part of a Deployment and Distribution battalion. Watford worked as a liaison officer between Reserve units and active duty military units.
Still on active duty, Watford is also rehabbing a back injury.
As his wife, Pam, said, when Watford was offered the opportunity to continue rehab at a base in Georgia or return home, where he could rehab at Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf, the choice was easy.
“He said let me out of here, let me go home,” Pam Watford said.
The Watfords’ two children, who were babes the first time Buck was deployed, wrote letters which were read by son Chase.
Daughter Haley was three when Buck was first deployed – she has graduated college and is a teacher, like her father and mother.
She wrote of the pride she feels every time her students recite the Pledge of Allegiance to begin class. She wrote of her mother’s steadfast determination to keep the home front normal.
“Mom played both roles and she never let us know that she was worried or scared,” Haley wrote.
She added that the deployments had brought the family closer and how blessed she felt to have a father willing to sacrifice so much to serve his country.
“I am thankful and proud to be an American,” Haley wrote.
Chase called his father, “The strongest man I’ve met. You are a true man of excellence, a true man of service.”
The hug between father and son was sufficient to melt polar ice as the assembled students and teachers roared their approval.
Having composed himself, Watford promised the students his would be the shortest speech of the day.
“If nothing else, I appreciate all this,” Watford said. “I’m extremely honored, extremely grateful for all you have done. I walked in not knowing what was going on.
“I am very honored. I am proud to be back among you. I love this town.”
And for 45 minutes last week, it was clear that the town seconded those emotions.