Pfc. Michael Hawkins spent about $100 on dinner Thursday evening, splurging for a steak feast. Hawkins knows he won’t have chow like that in Afghanistan, where he and the rest of the Winchester unit of the Virginia Army National Guard are headed.
But he was home for one last break before deployment. And this meal was for family — all of his family at the recently opened Lloyd House, which was dedicated last week on the campus of the Henry and William Evans Home for Children Inc. in Winchester. “It’s like being home again,” Hawkins said of the Lloyd House after nearly four months of training in Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Polk, La. “I think everybody should have that feeling. It feels great to have a place to come home to.”
It’s a simple thing that most soldiers probably take for granted — a hug from mom, or dad, or wife, or child when they first come home. Hawkins wasn’t always sure he’d have somebody to greet him. Coming from the most shattered of families, Hawkins lost his father in a car accident when he was 3, and then his mother left him with his grandmother when he was 13. He’s lived in about 15 cities and towns in Virginia and West Virginia, bouncing between foster families, group homes, and other family members’ houses.
But now, as the 20-year-old citizen-soldier who’s about to spend the next year at the center of the war on terrorism rests on a couch in the Lloyd House, it’s hard to notice any wear and tear from those family hardships.
He’s all grown up. And he’s doing just fine. “I think it has a lot to do with him,” said Laura Regan, a program director at the Evans Home. “He always wanted more.” Hawkins could have been anywhere but here.
A self-admitted troubled kid, Hawkins said he didn’t straighten up until after high school. Coming from a family of alcohol abusers, he said, Hawkins never knew what a real family was. “Nobody was really family in my family,” Hawkins said. “It was like living with a pack of dogs. When they had a fight, they never had the intelligence to sit down and talk it out.” He hasn’t talked to his mom since she left while he was in middle school. “I was just angry,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t understand.”
Then, as a torn teenager, Hawkins struggled finding comfort in foster families or group homes. But the Evans Home, which has provided shelter for orphaned children since 1949, invited him in when he was 16 — on July 5, 2000, he distinctly remembers. “I came here and it just clicked,” Hawkins said. “They’ve done the most for me. Nobody else was willing to stick with me when I was a real jerk. They did. They kept me until I was the right way. They were the only people willing to do that.”
Hawkins graduated from Handley High School in 2002 and joined the National Guard about a year later.
Three months of basic training, from Aug. 11 to Nov. 21, 2003, sealed his status as a mature man, he said.
“The reason I do this Army thing is not because of the money or that I’m here to defend my country — which I am — but it’s something I do to make me feel good,” Hawkins said. “When I put that uniform on, I feel I’m part of something bigger and greater.”
Hawkins has a scattered vision of what he wants to do after the deployment ends in about a year. But he’s considering going into active duty with the Special Forces or the Air Force. Hawkins always has been a dreamer, he said, even when he had few reasons to dream. And so, though he’s only 20 years old, he doesn’t mind thinking about retirement.
“I don’t want to retire in my house and sit around and watch ‘Matlock’ or ‘Murder She Wrote,’” Hawkins said. “There’s more to life than sitting in your basement and making model airplanes. “I just want to get a sailboat and start sailing the world. I want to wake up and then, ‘Eh, I want to go to France today.’ And then I’ll just set my sails and go.”