ISU veteran remembers service in Iraq

Chelsea Davis

Steve Hawkins described his arrival in Iraq in one word: overwhelming.

“It’s a completely different world over there,” he said.

Hawkins, senior in criminal justice, joined the military at 19 when he was between Hawkeye Community College and Iowa State.

“It was a family thing, I guess. My dad, grandpa and uncles were all in the army,” Hawkins said. “My grandfather and two uncles were Marines.”

Hawkins left for training in California in September 2007, and trained for four months before departing for Iraq. He was there for eight months.

“We were stationed in Saqlawiyah [by Fallujah] for the first five months, then we relocated to Habbaniyah for the last few months,” Hawkins said.

While there, the soldiers patrolled a lot, both in vehicles and on foot. Hawkins said they functioned on three cycles that would rotate weekly: patrolling, forward operating base security and quick reaction force security.

FOB security was a six to eight hour shift of patrol.

QRF security was a way for soldiers to be “on call” if anyone in the field needed their help.

“If someone got in trouble or needed help they would call QRF and we would help them out,” Hawkins said. “You have to have all your equipment and vehicles ready at all times.”

Hawkins faced a few difficulties while overseas. His unit became lost a lot, had to deal with vehicles getting stuck and some confrontations.

“We interacted with Iraqis face-to-face every day,” Hawkins said. “The army tried to teach us some of the language before we went, but mostly, we just knew ‘stop,’ ‘put your hands up,’ ‘turn around’ and things like ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.'”

Thankfully, Hawkins’ unit had an interpreter ride along when they were on patrol.

But Hawkins said the hardest part was being away from his family.

“It feels like the world stops because you’re over there,” he said. “But when you call back the world just keeps going without you.”

Hawkins wanted to remind everyone that soldiers enjoy receiving a random package every now and then.

“It feels like people forget about you and that sucks,” Hawkins said. “People need to remember there are still soldiers over there and there will be for a long time.”

Once he arrived back in the U.S., Hawkins became frustrated with people.

“It’s irritating to see how people focus on the little mundane things when there are a lot bigger things to worry about,” he said.

While he was happy to see his family again, Hawkins said coming home was really difficult.

“We came back to California for a week or two, then came back to Iowa,” Hawkins said. “It was good to see my family, but it felt so different because I was used to carrying a weapon and doing fives and twenty-fives.”

Fives and twenty-fives are when the unit stops to check IDs.

“We step out five meters from the vehicle and check, then go out 20 more meters and check again,” he said. “It became a natural instinct.”

While Hawkins was not in a serious combat situation, he said post-traumatic stress disorder is a very serious condition most people don’t understand.

“It’s usually a sad story for the people who have it,” Hawkins said. “I can’t speak from personal experience, but as far as how even being over there affects you, it has a major life effect.”

Hawkins left for Iowa State immediately, two days after he returned to Iowa.

“I really regret doing that because it was hard to deal with people when I was used to such a militaristic lifestyle,” he said.

Going to the bars bothered Hawkins right when he got back.

“Over there you’re expected to know where everyone is and know what everyone is doing around you. So you start second-guessing people and it makes you nervous from the lack of control,” Hawkins said. “It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been back, and anymore it doesn’t really bother me. But just the fact that you have to walk around without a weapon and without backup is enough to scare someone who’s used to always being armed and ready.”

Right before Hawkins was deployed, he got engaged.

“She was honestly great, like as good as anyone could ask for,” he said. “I came back to the states and I guess I was in a different mindset.”

A mindset his fiance called “marine mode.”

“She’s really been a big shoulder for me to lean on throughout the entire process,” Hawkins said. “So I came back, and I was so used to only taking care of myself and my guys that I guess I didn’t focus a whole lot on her, and that led to a break up.”

Today though, the two are back together, and Hawkins said “it’s going great.”

“I think it just takes awhile to ‘civilianize’ yourself when you get back in the states,” he said. “It’s like you get back after this huge life experience and everyone expects you to be the same person, which simply isn’t the case. A lot of military folks have relationship problems during deployment for a number of reasons, and even with a rock like her, it’s a huge challenge.”

For Memorial Day weekend, Hawkins plans on returning home to Brooklyn, Iowa to see family; go to Holiday Lake; and visit graves.

Hawkins said there is one important thing to remember.

“Don’t forget about our soldiers just because they’re gone,” he said. “Focus less on mundane, petty issues and focus more on the real world.”