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From dog handler to legal chief: Airman ascends ranks from quiet liftoff

Lt. Col. Dan Watson, chief of the acquisition law division for Air Force Materiel Command, is pictured at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on April 20, 2021. Watson pinned on the rank of Colonel May 1 at Wright-Patt, where he began his Air Force career as an enlisted dog handler. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ty Greenlees)

Lt. Col. Dan Watson, chief of the acquisition law division for Air Force Materiel Command, is pictured at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on April 20, 2021. Watson pinned on the rank of Colonel May 1 at Wright-Patt, where he began his Air Force career as an enlisted dog handler. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ty Greenlees)

Lt. Col. Dan Watson, chief of the acquisition law division for Air Force Materiel Command, holds the patch from his first assignment as a law enforcement specialist and military working dog handler. Watson pinned on the rank of Colonel May 1 at Wright-Patt, where he began his Air Force career as an enlisted dog handler. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ty Greenlees)

Lt. Col. Dan Watson, chief of the acquisition law division for Air Force Materiel Command, holds the patch from his first assignment as a law enforcement specialist and military working dog handler. Watson pinned on the rank of Colonel May 1 at Wright-Patt, where he began his Air Force career as an enlisted dog handler. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ty Greenlees)

Airman Dan Watson poses with his military working dog, Arco, in front of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s kennels in the fall of 1994. Watson served his first assignment here as a military working dog handler before returning 25 years later as deputy chief and chief of acquisition law at the AFMC Law Office. (Contributed photo)

Airman Dan Watson poses with his military working dog, Arco, in front of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s kennels in the fall of 1994. Watson served his first assignment here as a military working dog handler before returning 25 years later as deputy chief and chief of acquisition law at the AFMC Law Office. (Contributed photo)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Lt. Col. Dan Watson traded his oak leaf for the silver eagle May 1 within the same gates as his first assignment, joining the tiny 1 percent of active-duty personnel who have achieved a rank of colonel or higher in the Air Force.

But Watson, now chief of acquisition law for the Air Force Materiel Command Law Office, attributes his ambitious leadership status on the legal team today to his modest beginning in the Security Forces working dog kennel, on the patrol shift and at the bottom of the military hierarchy without insignia 27 years ago.

A 20-year-old from the suburbs of Cleveland, Watson enlisted in the Air Force as an airman basic in 1993. 

“I was looking for a job with meaning larger than myself,” he recalled. “My dad and grandfathers had served in the Air Force, and it just seemed like a good place to launch because I was a bit adrift.”

Planting roots at Wright-Patt

Ready to “travel the world,” the new Airman landed just a few hours south of home in a security policeman’s beret, checking IDs, searching vehicles and monitoring state Route 444 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base beside his military working dog, Arco.

“He was a really wild character but a great dog with a great nose,” Watson said. “It was fun to do the training events and really immerse myself in the dog world. I loved that first assignment.

“I don’t know that I had a long-range plan at the time. But whether it was basic training or tech school and eventually the police career field, I learned a lot about discipline and setting goals to help frame whatever talents you might have within you.”

But during these long shifts in the beret, Watson began extending his vision to the larger work context, thinking beyond his position title and formulating ambitions and interests that would change the trajectory of his career against the odds.

“There is a huge legal component behind being a cop,” he said. “As an Airman, you’re a little insulated from it, but I had seen enough behind the curtain to think it sounded pretty exciting.”

His late-night patrols with Arco put the judge advocate general on speed dial for search authorizations and occasionally obligated Watson himself to the witness stand at magistrate court proceedings.

“I felt like, as a cop, I had an aptitude for the law and legal stuff,” he said. “But also, I’m not the biggest guy in the world, so I figured I’d use my brains as opposed to the physical aspect. A lot of my friends went on to become firefighters and cops, and I decided to go into the legal field.

“After the first assignment, I did something atypical. It was here at Wright-Patt — out on the gates and out on patrol — that I decided I was going to try to be the first person in my family to graduate from college. Ultimately, I had my eye on law school.”

Temporary detour

Watson separated from service in 1997 and immediately pursued his bachelor’s degree in political science at Cleveland State University and juris doctorate at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law back-to-back in just six years, graduating from both college and law school with various honors.

After the 9/11 attacks, Watson made yet another unorthodox decision that he would rejoin the Air Force as an officer in the legal field once he completed his education.

“To get out and then get back in — that was a little different,” he said. “Even during my break in service, the ethics, the core values, really stuck with me, and I always felt like I wanted to come back. 9/11 solidified that for me, but I’d always had my eye on it.

“The leadership opportunities of an officer were always appealing to me, so the opportunity to be a lawyer and an officer was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up if I could do it.”

Seventeen years later, Watson’s legal career and his early-20s travel plans have stretched far and wide. He’s stood up in courtrooms and led legal teams from Hawaii to Iraq, New Mexico to Massachusetts, and Florida and Texas to California.

But he’s happy to have landed back at Wright-Patt, mentoring his Airmen in a team atmosphere instead of fighting it out in the courtroom. Watson and the AFMC Law Office support clients seeking to acquire major weapon systems for the Air Force.

“A lot of things have changed,” he said, remembering his first taste of the Air Force here. “My old squadron is torn down; they have a new Security Forces squadron. The highway is no longer accessible all the way through. We used to patrol out there, and now it’s closed off on 444. But in a lot of ways, it’s stayed remarkably the same. It feels like home to be here.”

‘It’s not always about doing what you love’

Watson says the humble path he pursued to the senior officer ranks, from cleaning canine waste out of the kennels to surveying midnight traffic on his way up to colonel, make him an empathetic judge advocate with his clients and Airmen.

“It gives me a different perspective having been an airman basic at the very bottom of the rank structure and understanding what that feels like and fostering in others what they’re capable of,” he said. “A lot of times, the fact that I’ve had this prior-enlisted background has allowed me to interact with enlisted folks and be a better mentor, be a better officer because they know that I’ve stood in those shoes.

“I’ve always tried to maintain that no matter who I engage with, I treat the airman basic with the same amount of respect I treat the general with. I think that’s absolutely critical. Now obviously, there’s protocols and customs and courtesies rendered to senior people, but as human beings, we all deserve dignity.”

Maj. Landon Wedermyer, an acquisition attorney in the AFMC Law Office’s Research and Specialized Contracting Branch, testifies to his supervisor’s servant disposition.

“With Lt. Col. Watson, some of the most common questions I hear are, ‘What can I do for you?’ or ‘How can I help?’” Wedermyer said. “He is a true example of servant leadership. He knows that people are the most valuable resource in the Air Force, and he is always striving to make sure his people are empowered to accomplish their mission.

“He has taught me the value of embracing challenges. Every time he presents me or another attorney with a tough task or mission, he makes sure we know that we have his full confidence and support. We deal with unique issues that impact the entire Air Force and Space Force every day, and Lt. Col. Watson makes sure that if we put everything we have into helping our clients, he’ll put everything he has into supporting us.”

Watson’s achievements prove valid the wisdom he offers to the airmen basics of Wright-Patt.

“Set goals for yourself,” he said. “You may not end up exactly where you set your sights, but if you set goals, whether they’re short-term goals or long-term, that at least puts you down a path. The world is open to you if you have a good attitude and work hard.

“Doing the things you don’t like to do are the keys to harnessing any of your talents. It’s not always about doing what you love.”

Watson’s own objective for his new rank reflects the character he’s carried up the chain and around the world and back to get there.

“I want to be able to take what I’ve learned and share it with others when the opportunity presents itself,” he added. “Being in a mentor-leader role is what I aspire to do with the rest of my military time, however long that may be.”