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In a New York Minute
Staff Sergeant Marlana Watson was playing “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2” around 10 o’clock on the night of Nov. 5, 2014, when she heard five popping noises coming from outside her apartment in Syracuse, NY. As a Veteran of the war in Afghanistan, she was all too familiar with that sound—gunfire. Her motherly instincts kicked in first. She ran to make sure her son, Lassan, then 5, was OK. She was relieved to find him sleeping peacefully. Then her training as a medic in the New York National Guard took over. She asked her sister to call 911 and then ran into the street toward a voice calling for help.
That voice came from one of two teenage boys who were lying in a yard across from her home. Ages 13 and 15, they had been wounded in a drive-by shooting. Watson didn’t stop to think that whoever shot them could have still been there, or could return to check on the targets and shoot her, too. She didn’t think about any of that. She simply did what she’d been taught.
With those lives hanging in the balance, Watson, then a member of the 107th Military Police Company, put her own safety aside to treat the victims and take charge of the scene, directing bystanders to assist her.
Mother. Soldier. Medic. Now, add hero to that list. For her bravery, Watson received in August the New York State Medal for Valor, the state’s highest military honor, along with the gratitude of the state’s highest officials. “I commend her heroic actions and am proud to see this exemplary New Yorker receive this well-deserved honor,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
Major General Patrick Murphy, the adjutant general of New York, said: “Staff Sergeant Watson acted in the best traditions of the New York National Guard when she went to the aid of those two young men, despite the risk that the assailants could open fire again.”
What kind of person does that? What kind of person charges into danger while others watch from behind the curtains? Turns out, the same kind who would fly into a war zone to chase down a loved one.
Watson, 28, pictured above, currently a full-time recruiter with A Company of the New York Army National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion in Farmingdale, comes from a long line of Soldiers. Her grandfather, stepfather, uncle and brother all served in the military. She enlisted in the Guard when she was just 17 and still in high school.
In 2012, she deployed to Afghanistan with New York’s 427th Brigade Support Battalion and served as part of the 3rd Battalion, 401st Army Field Support Brigade, at Bagram Air Base. Watson was the NCO-in-charge when she got a call from her brother, Jeff, who was then a U.S. Army specialist. (He has since left the military.) Jeff, who is two years younger than Marlana, told her he had deployed, too, with the 2nd Infantry Division, and he was in Kandahar. She hadn’t seen Jeff in more than three years and was not going to miss the opportunity to reunite with him. So Marlana (pronounced mar-LAY-na) flew to Kandahar to find him.
“I land. I’m so excited. I’m running around asking, ‘Where’s 2nd ID, where’s 2nd ID?’ ” she says. “I’m literally knocking on doors [and] on tents. [It’s] all males, no females. They’re like, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ” Marlana asked the troops to help find her little brother. Somebody laughed and said, “There’s nothing little about Specialist Watson,” who, at 5 feet, 11 inches, was a thickly muscled 215 pounds at the time. Another Soldier told her that Jeff had just left on a Chinook to fly downrange. He was headed deep into the war zone—“farthest from the flag,” as the saying goes. That did not deter Marlana. She talked her way onto the next Chinook to find him.
“This is a hot zone, so when we fly in, there [are] no lights,” she says. “We’re in the air, we’re getting shot at. I hear ping, ping.”
The helicopter didn’t land. It hovered long enough for her to jump out. She immediately resumed the hunt for her brother. Someone said he was patrolling the base’s perimeter. Finally, Marlana and a fellow sergeant found Jeff warming himself by a fire. It was night and dark, and Marlana had full gear on, so he did not recognize her as she approached. Playing a joke on him, she and the sergeant said: Drop trou. It’s time for a tick check.
“Tick check? One of you is a female,” Jeff said.
“Don’t you recognize your own sister?” Marlana said.
“What the …?” Jeff said.
“J, it’s me,” Marlana said. Then, Jeff knew it was really his sister, as only family members call him that.
Reunited, they spent the next few days together. “I missed him so much,” Marlana says. “It felt good. It was like a release. I felt like I was getting away without getting away.”
What kind of person jumps from base to base, dodging bullets, just to see her little brother? The kind who keeps her cool even when she’s afraid and blood seems to be everywhere.
If Watson didn’t think about the danger when she ran outside that night in Syracuse, what did she think about? Somebody needed help, she says, and as a medic, she was trained to give it.
When Watson crossed the street, she found the two boys lying on the grass, both bleeding from their gunshot wounds. The first one told her he had been shot in the back. She pulled off his boot and sock, used the sock to put pressure on the wound and told a bystander to hold it there.
She rolled the boy over to see if there was an exit wound. There wasn’t. As she worked on him, Watson saw an SUV drive by, slowly. This was the only time Watson felt frightened. She thought it might be the shooters returning to finish the job. But it wasn’t; it was someone else calling 911.
Watson moved on to the second victim. He had been shot twice in the leg. She couldn’t assess the wounds, because he had pants on. She worried that a bullet had hit his femoral artery. If that was the case, she would need to put pressure on the wound immediately, or he would bleed to death.
“I was about to rip his pants off [to administer aid],” she says. “He said, ‘No, no, I’m so cold, it hurts.’ I said, ‘I know, you’re probably cold because you’re losing a lot of blood.’ ”
She asked her sister, Barbie Shea, who lived with Marlana and her son at that time and had just come outside to see what had happened, to grab a blanket. By the time Shea returned, police and EMTs had arrived. Both teens survived. They later told police they didn’t know who the shooter was.
After it was all over, Watson walked back across the street to her apartment building. The entire incident had lasted just a few minutes. She was covered in blood. As her adrenaline rush subsided, she contemplated what had just happened.
“I just kind of sat there. You just rethink it in your head: You could have died or got shot because you wanted to help someone. You survived Afghanistan to go home and get shot in Syracuse,” she says. “That’s what I was thinking: You know, Marlana, you really need to think before you act sometimes.”
But reflecting on what occurred didn’t make her regret her actions. Given another chance in the same circumstances, she’d do the same thing. The Guard had trained her to save lives, so that’s what she did.
What kind of person is able to block out everything in the world that’s important to her and focus on helping complete strangers? The kind who can do that and still give every ounce of herself to what she cherishes the most.
Jeff was not surprised at Marlana’s quick thinking and decisive action on that 2014 night, because he had seen it before, including on one of the darkest days of his life. His father, also named Jeffrey Watson, was murdered in 2009. Later, an ex-wife was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, and her boyfriend was convicted of first-degree murder. The crime was allegedly committed to collect on Watson’s life insurance policy.
The elder Jeff was Marlana’s stepfather. He had helped raise her before before he and Marlana’s mother were divorced. The entire family, especially the younger Jeff, was devastated by his death.
Marlana hopped on a plane with her mother and arrived in Colorado the very next day to support Jeff through his grief, even though money was tight and Marlana was nine months pregnant. When she left Colorado, it was the last time she saw her brother before reuniting with him in Afghanistan.
“I’m all about family first,” Marlana says. “Your family’s always going to be there. [They’re] my biggest backbone. I’ve been truly blessed with how much family support I’ve had in the military and [during] deployment and everything.”
Years later, while in Afghanistan, Watson became good friends with Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tia Mizell. They bonded over their shared backgrounds as Soldiers and single moms (Mizell has since married and Watson is engaged). Mizell admires Watson for the way she handled the strain of being deployed thousands of miles from home for endless months.
“I saw a lot of the traits in her that I tried to live up to,” Mizell says. “She did what she needed to do to be successful so her son was successful. She worked hard, put in the hours, made the sacrifices.”
Mizell’s deployment ended a few weeks before Watson’s, and she was at the armory when Marlana returned from Afghanistan. Marlana’s son was there, too. They had not seen each other in a year. Mizell watched as they ran to each other. “I could see, just the relief, the love and the tears,” Mizell says. “They hugged. He was so happy to see her and tell her everything about what was going on.”
Watson never sought publicity for what she did on that street in Syracuse. She mentioned it in passing the next day to Mizell. “It didn’t seem like it was anything outrageous,” Mizell says, recalling Watson’s telling of the story. “Until we saw it on the news and started to hear a little more about the story. Then it was like, Holy moly.”
Watson’s heroics might have gone completely unnoticed if not for an enterprising Syracuse reporter who was waiting at Watson’s home to interview her when she got home from work the next day.
Watson doesn’t think she deserves the Medal for Valor, but she does think it was no coincidence that she was where she was when the shooting occurred. “I’m like, ‘God, you’re a funny guy,’ ” Watson says. “I feel blessed, and I feel honored. I’m not glad that this happened, but I’m glad that [out of] anywhere it could have happened, it happened in front of my house”—a house with someone who’s medically trained.
And when it did happen, Watson says, she reacted as anyone would have. How could anyone, let alone a medic, hear cries for help and stay inside? she wonders.
Jeff says his sister’s willingness to put herself in danger for others is second nature to her. “To me,” he says, “her doing that is like other people waking up and brushing their teeth.”
What kind of person makes that kind of sacrifice so easily? The kind who has done it before.