By Sgt. Elizabeth C. Harris
14th Public Affairs Detachment
FORT CARSON, Colo. — The journey through life presents many decision points where we are left asking ourselves, “What now?”
From high school graduation, to college graduation, to various career changes, to marriage and child-rearing, to retirement, we find ourselves at crossroads where we must figure out our next move.
For one former Soldier, the goal of self-improvement has remained paramount to that decision-making process.
In an open field overlooking Pikes Peak, he stands in the center of a group of cadets, directing his platoon and practicing military movement drills. Before enrolling at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Cadet Antonio Hawkins enlisted in the Army July 1, 2009, as a forward observer, and there his quest to better himself began.
“It was actually about two weeks after I graduated high school,” said the Chicago native. “I already knew I was going (to join the Army.) I did Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) in high school, and I wanted nothing more than to be like the NCOs that taught me during that time, so I enlisted immediately.”
After his initial entry training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he was assigned to Fort Carson.
Typically, Soldiers serve at one duty station for two-three years, but Hawkins ended up staying at the Mountain Post for seven years, where he worked his way up the rank structure.
Staying in the same unit for seven years could serve as a hindrance for some Soldiers, but not for Hawkins. It gave him opportunities he might not have gotten anywhere else.
“It really worked out for me,” he said, “because that allowed me to move through the ranks a little bit easier and allowed me to challenge myself, because I served in a lot of positions above my pay grade.”
From the very beginning of his military career, Hawkins sought greater opportunities.
Even though Hawkins was a private, he had a lot of responsibility during his first deployment, said his longtime military friend, Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Childers.
“As a private, he was controlling aircraft, dropping bombs, controlling mortars — all that in his sector,” said Childers, targeting NCO, 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. “He’s always trying to be the best at whatever position he is in, which is a really good characteristic to have.”
Hawkins had goals in mind at the start of his enlistment.
“I planned on being the sergeant major of the Army (SMA),” Hawkins said. “I mean, that’s a bit farfetched, right? But honestly, I really wanted to be SMA, and that’s what I was shooting for.”
Hawkins was eager as a private. He wanted to emulate the NCOs from his JROTC days, but he also wanted to go to college and become an officer.
“I thought it was right up his alley,” said Childers. “He’s got that personality.”
Young Hawkins heard about a program that could help him become an officer. So, after two months of being at Fort Carson, he attended a “Green to Gold” brief to learn more.
“I was curious about how officers did their thing, because you know, we are privates,” he said. “We go to basic training, and you really don’t see the officers. You see the NCOs.”
He didn’t have enough time in service or on station to apply for the “Green to Gold” scholarship, but that didn’t deter him from achieving his goals. He just needed to wait until the time was right.
While his enlistment saw him stabilized in Colorado, he did get the chance to travel. While assigned to the then, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Hawkins experienced the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California; saw the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana; and deployed to Afghanistan and Kuwait.
At the rank of staff sergeant, he approached another fork in the road. He was coming up to the end of his military contract in 2016 and had to decide what path he was going to take.
Decisions, decisions, decisions.
With his enlistment coming to an end, and having a Family to care for, Hawkins had a dilemma.
“The wife and I were freaking out, kind of,” said Hawkins. “I was trying to play it cool for her, you know, and make her feel like it was going to be OK.”
He said he wanted a career that transferred to the civilian sector, but his combat arms background limited his options.
“In Colorado Springs, you have to have an associate degree to be a cop, and I just didn’t have this education,” he said.
Hawkins didn’t want to pay for school, and he wanted to continue to serve. So the day after his active-duty contract ended, he joined the National Guard.
He said he wanted to set a good example for his 7-year-old son, but he also wasn’t done with the military. He applied to three different colleges, two of which are in his home state: Northern Illinois University and Eastern Illinois University. He also applied to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Fortunately, Hawkins was accepted to all three.
He and his Family decided to stay in Colorado, so he could go to the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS). His plan was materializing.
Three years later, he found himself at the Mountain Ranger Battalion at Camp Eagle Rock, UCCS Army ROTC, well on his way to achieving his goals.
And his schooling won’t stop there.
“I want to be a physical therapist,” said Hawkins, who is currently fulfilling prerequisites for the Army-Baylor University physical therapy program. “Hopefully (I’ll) get into that (program), and then go to school for a couple years.”
If he is accepted into the program at Army-Baylor University, he will be a captain by the time he graduates.
Soldier for life
Hawkins went from being a Soldier 24/7 to being a Soldier one weekend a month, and two weeks out of the year, which allows him to pursue his education and continuously serve his country. But the transition is something that had to grow on him.
The National Guard doesn’t experience the same training active-duty service members do on a day-to-day basis.
“It was really weird,” he said, still identifying more with his active-duty roots than with his current reserve component status. “They serve a little bit differently than we do. They train a lot differently than we do,” said Hawkins.
Not only is the National Guard different than what he knew from active duty, he is a cadet. Hawkins isn’t an officer; he isn’t an NCO; he’s stuck somewhere in the middle.
In preparation for the next phase of his journey, he enrolled in the simultaneous membership program, which allows cadets to serve their country while also seeing the world they are about to enter.
“They allow me to serve as a cadet in the same position as another officer, and the commander mentors me and just teaches me,” Hawkins said.
Before he can commission, he must go to summer camp. Currently in his third year of military science, he will soon go to Fort Knox, Kentucky, along with other cadets from all over the country. There, he and his peers will be evaluated in different leadership positions. How well a cadet does will determine what branch as well as what component he will serve in.
Hawkins has a leg up compared to other cadets who have never served in the military.
“Being a prior NCO will also help me achieve some things that a … brand new lieutenant can’t, right, because I’m already ahead of the power curve,” he said.
And with his drive, motivation and will to succeed, he intends to keep it that way.
“Anyone who’s around him — it always bleeds off on them,” said Childers. “He applies that sort of motivation and wanting to achieve more in his life, in his ROTC program and in school.”