By Jacqueline M. HamesMarch 31, 2009
Sergeant 1st Class Tara Watson and her son Xavier have survived a hurricane and braved the tribulations of show business, and throughout, Army values have helped them with both triumph and disappointment. They hope their story will encourage others to continue to reach for their dreams, come hell and high water.
Currently in the Active Guard and Reserve, Watson has been in the Army for a total of 19 years. Originally from New Orleans, her two children, Xavier and Chantell, lived with their grandparents and uncle there when she was stationed in Iraq from 2004-2005. In August of 2005, Watson picked up her children and brought them to her duty station in Clarksdale, Miss. Then the unthinkable happened.
Hurricane Katrina roared into New Orleans on Aug. 29, breaching the levee four miles from Watson's parents' house. Her parents, Thesma and Henry Fulton and brother Kirk, who had moved to the French Quarter for safety, were forced to pile their belongings into a truck and flee.
"They started throwing stuff into the truck, trying to get out-my dad fell," Watson said. "When they got to me, he was all broken up, they were hysterical."
The Fulton family went on the road in hopes of reaching Watson's house in Mississippi, but became lost along the way, Watson explained. She had been calling her family and trying to find out where they were, but no one was answering.
"No one thought to bring the charger or charge the phones," Watson said. So, instead of waiting around to find out what was going on, Watson, like any good Soldier, took action. She got in her car and went to find them.
"Finally, between two and three o'clock in the morning, I got a collect call from somebody at a gas station (saying) that she had my family there. And I picked them up and brought them to my house," Watson said.
The rebuilding process is always difficult, both physically and emotionally, but returning to the scene of the destruction was more devastating to Watson and her family than the actual event. She and her father returned to the Fulton house in New Orleans to see what kind of damage had been done.
"A lot of what we saw, you know, was kind of worse than what we saw in Iraq, because of bodies floating (in the water) and stuff like that," Watson said.
Watson described the house as pitch black in the early afternoon, slime and decay covering the walls, floor and the contents of the house. They wore face masks, gloves and rubber boots in order to just go inside. Henry hesitated, unwilling to go in, and for the first time ever Watson saw her father cry. She explained that the thought of all the hard work he put into the house and the family business being washed away in the hurricane was just too much.
The Henry S. Fulton Ceramic Tile Company trucks and business documentation were lost to the hurricane, Watson said, and the custom tile Henry had added to the house was ruined.
Once inside, Watson pointed a digital camera into the different rooms and, unable to see what was in the viewfinder, snapped pictures at random. She and her family finally saw the extent of the damage when the pictures were uploaded to a computer back in Clarksdale.
"When I showed them to my mom, she had a big gasp for breath," Watson said, describing her family's reaction to the pictures. "My mom said when she saw the home she spent 35 years of her life in, the tears began to flow like a river."
The living room, which had a big-screen television and a collection of VHS tapes that were special to Thesma, was completely unsalvageable. In pictures you can see the water-line where the flood sat at 12 feet before they patched the levee, Watson explained.
Thesma and Henry's room was in total disarray, with the television turned over, and the specially designed wallpaper and bed frame destroyed.
"The king-size mattress was inflated with water and it looked like a big balloon," Watson said.
During the aftermath of the storm, the AGR helped Watson and her family. Her commander at the time sent a support team to New Orleans to help with the citywide clean-up process, and provided assistance to Watson's family specifically, she said. He also helped in any way he could with her father's hip surgery and medical care for her brother Kirk Fulton, who was diagnosed with pulmonary lung disease.
"A lot of credit goes to my unit at the time," Watson said. "I had good Soldiers, really good Soldiers," she said, explaining that her office would often tell her to go home and that they would take care of things while she was gone.
"Without the Army working with me I would not have been able to leave my job and deal with the family stuff. They gave me time to take care of my family," Watson said.
In addition to physical help and basic care, Watson felt the Army prepared her emotionally as well. The leadership philosophy of "be, know, do" and other values taught by the Army gave Watson the strength to endure.
The framework of "be, know, do" comprises the core Army values and outlines the physical, mental and emotional attributes for character-what a leader must be. Interpersonal, conceptual, technical and tactical skills are what a leader knows, and the combination of the "be" and "know" form the "do" portion of the framework, according to Army Field Manual 6-22, "Army Leadership."
"I had to pass on the bag, I had the friends, I had the support of the community," Watson added.
Xavier agreed, praising his mom as the strength of the family.
"I watched my mom try to hold the family together and I realized how strong-minded she is since being in the military," he said. "I think any normal person would have just cried and cried, but not my mom; she put the weight of the family losing the home, family business and vehicles on her shoulders.
Watson had been taking online courses at the University of Phoenix before the hurricane hit. When the storm made landfall, she had to put her schooling on hold to help her family. Happily, Watson was able to return to her studies soon after and graduated with an associate's degree in general studies in July 2007.
"I don't know how she did it, but because the Army instills such strong values in them, they are 'Army Strong' at work and at home," Xavier added.
Xavier, an aspiring actor, has taken his mother's example to heart and used the "be, know, do" philosophy to his advantage. A month after Katrina, Xavier and his family moved to Decatur, Ga., and there he began his acting career in local dramas and musicals, he said. He's gone on to have parts in commercials and other professional performances.
"Now I'm doing professional work, Screen Actors Guild eligible," Xavier said, adding that Army values and philosophy helped him reach that goal.
"Knowing how to adjust to a role is the biggest part," Xavier said of acting. "It's easier to be a character if you know how to find the similarities and differences between you and the character."
Xavier also emphasized that acting has to be something you really want to do. Letting your personality shine through while still being integrated into the character is very important-you must be one with the role, he advised.
"Once you be and know the character, then you can fulfill the role confidently. Acting can't be absorbed; you have to just show up to the audition, become the character and just do it," Xavier said.
The young actor said that the hurricane has taught him never to take life for granted and to use his talent to influence other people to achieve their goals.
"My message is 'reach for the dream,'" Xavier said. "That is my tagline."
Together, Watson and her son have written a book about their experiences with Hurricane Katrina and the different ways it changed their lives. The book, entitled "Weathering the Storm: A Young Actor's Journey to Hollywood," chronicles their family's experiences with Katrina and beyond the storm. Xavier also gives a few pointers on acting, resumes and auditions. Throughout the chronicle, the philosophy of "be, know, do" plays an important role.
"We just hope that our story will encourage other kids" who have been through Katrina, Watson said. "It's all about reaching for the dream."