At an age when most Americans are thinking about a quiet retirement, veteran police officer Don Watson of Franklin, Tennessee took on a new challenge - a tour of duty in Kosovo for the United Nations.
Don Watson completed his first law enforcement career in the early 1990s, retiring from the U.S. Treasury Department after 22 years. He spent the next six years in local law enforcement, as a patrolman in the small town of Franklin, Tennessee. Still not ready to slow down in his early sixties, Officer Watson took on yet another challenge just over a year ago.
He left the Franklin Police Department to participate in a 15-month United Nations mission to Kosovo, joining police officers from dozens of other nations to train a new police force for the province. He was assigned to Farizaj, a town of 50,000 near the capital of Pristina.
"Of course I was familiar with what had transpired in Kosovo as far as the war and the US bombing there and everything. I visited Europe a couple of times prior to this, and I always wondered what it would be like to actually live in a foreign country amongst the people. Not just to visit, but to live for a period of time," he said.
If Officer Watson had any romantic notions about spending a year in some exotic corner of Europe, they were quickly shattered. He said he found daily life in war-torn Kosovo a struggle.
"Sometimes you go for days with no electricity. In the wintertime, your only source of heat was electrical space heaters. So many times, I would sleep in a sleeping bag with about four layers of blankets and quilts and things like that on top of you," Officer Watson said. His assignment was to teach community policing techniques, trying to establish trust between policemen and the townspeople no small task in a community so recently torn apart by ethnic violence. As he grew close to people in Farizaj, he said he was impressed with their resilience and compassion.
"After the 9/11 incident, many, many of them came up to me on the street, and expressed their sympathy to me. Their attitude toward each other is very protective. I guess it's because of what they've been through in the war situation," he said.
Sadly, Officer Watson said that compassion rarely crosses ethnic lines. He recalls a particular incident that suggests ethnic reconciliation will be a long time coming.
"A little boy came up and touched my holster, my gun, and he said something to his father. My language assistant, my interpreter, told me he said to his father, 'That's for killing Serbians,'" Officer Watson siad.
When he returned to Tennessee at the end of February, Don Watson couldn't just pick up where he'd left off. He had to retake the police department's officer candidate exams right along with the new recruits, some more than 30 years his junior. But Franklin Police Chief Jackie Moore said Officer Watson had no trouble keeping up with the rookies.
"Most of the people that we hire here are in their twenties and thirties, and consequently, you would expect the physical stamina and ability of the twenty and thirty year olds would be greater than a person the age of Don, but that's not the case with Don," Chief Moore said.
Franklin, Tennessee, located just south of Nashville, has a surprisingly diverse population for a small southern town. Chief Moore said he's happy to have Officer Watson's newly acquired cross-cultural experience at work for his department.
"There are many, many nations represented here; people who have immigrated to this area. Not only that, we have persons who have moved to Franklin from all of the other 49 states," Mr. Moore said.
Perhaps because he missed his own grandchildren so badly, Officer Watson said he made an especially strong connection with the children of Farizaj. When his grandkids ask why he went went to Kosovo, he'll talk about those children and their families.
"I knew that a lot of bad things had happened to some good people in Kosovo, and I thought that I could go over there and to help them live a better life, and help them rebuild their life and their country that had been torn apart by war. Kosovo sort of has a way of growing on you. It would be very easy to go back," Officer Watson said.