Stories are often told of people who spend their childhoods dreaming of serving as officers in the military. Some participate in JROTC programs during high school, while others choose college coursework that will better prepare them for their military careers.
Air Force Capt. Jason Hawkins followed a very different path. He didn’t always dream of becoming an aviator, and he didn’t have every detail of his future mapped out when he graduated from high school. It was a passion for flying that drove him to pursue a career in the military.
The son of an airman, Hawkins grew up in a Family that stressed academic achievement. However, while his sister excelled in school, he struggled in an academic setting.
After being expelled from school during his second attempt at completing the eighth grade, Hawkins attended an alternative high school during his freshman year.
“I decided ‘I haven’t gotten any good grades for a long time. I’m just going to get straight A’s just to prove to myself that I can do it,’” Hawkins said. “And I did. I got all A’s in every class.”
He returned to public high school, but he quickly fell back into the routine of just getting by. During his senior year, Hawkins struggled with his course work, and he enrolled in night classes to complete his requirements. He graduated in the bottom three percent of his class. At that point, college did not seem like an option for him.
After taking a year off and working several dead-end jobs, Hawkins decided to enlist in the Air Force. He was classed into the security forces squadron, and although it was not a career that he felt drawn to, he did not feel he had other options.
Hawkins said he vividly recalls the moment that he realized he wanted more out of life. He was stationed in Korea, working as a security forces gate guard at the flight line, and he spent his shifts watching F-16 fighter planes take off and land. As he was checking a pilot’s identification card on a particularly cold winter night, he had an epiphany.
“This one pilot, he rolls down the window with a big smile on his face and (he) shows me his badge,” Hawkins recalled. “You could tell he was a happy person. He was a pilot who got to fly these awesome airplanes.
“I went back to my shack after checking his ID and thought – ‘that’s what I want to do!’ I went right to the education office and said ‘sign me up. I want to take some education courses.’ And that was my focus for the next few years.”
Hawkins said the realization that he had the power to change the course of his life was an amazing revelation to him, and one that has driven him to continue to adapt and succeed in any challenge that comes his way.
He began taking courses through the Community College of the Air Force and eventually completed his associates degree in criminal justice.
His next duty station was Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, where he worked as an elite guard for the headquarters building. It was there that he met Air Force Lt. Gen Stephen Polk, who was then vice commander of the Pacific Air Forces.
“He was just a really nice regular guy,” Hawkins said. “He came in to work in civilian clothes one day, which made him seem even more approachable to a young airman. So I went up to him and said ‘Hey sir, I want to be a pilot. Any ideas what I should do?’ He said, ‘first thing you should do is start taking pilot lessons. Learn how to fly. It shows them you’re serious.’”
Hawkins went to the local airport, signed up for lessons, and earned his pilot’s license before leaving Hawaii.
After four years as an enlisted member of the Air Force, Hawkins decided to separate from active duty to pursue the bachelor’s degree that would allow him an opportunity to become an officer. His Family and friends were in a state of disbelief.
“I had just gotten married a year before and my wife was pregnant, and people were like ‘are you crazy?’” he said.
Hawkins knew that becoming an officer would allow him to pursue his dreams, so he took a leap of faith and went back to school. He and his wife moved to Texas, and he worked as a public school bus driver, a job that ensured he and his Family would have good insurance benefits. He took as many night courses as he could manage.
Before completing his degree, Hawkins applied for acceptance to Officer Training School. His inspiration, Polk, was now serving as inspector general of the Air Force.
“When I got out of the military he had (said), ‘If you ever need any help, let me know,’ and he seemed sincere about it,” Hawkins said. “I took a shot and sent him an email asking for a letter of recommendation, and he responded three hours later. So, sure enough, he wrote me a letter of recommendation.”
Getting back into the Air Force proved to be more difficult than Hawkins had anticipated.
“They wanted people with degrees in engineering, and the Air Force wasn’t really hiring officers at (that) time,” Hawkins said. “So, as a recruiter, you didn’t want to waste your time with an applicant who didn’t have a technical degree.”
Hawkins met with every recruiter in the area, but not one was willing to submit his application packet. He was determined to re-enter the Air Force, and he refused to give up.
Fortunately, he lived in San Antonio, home of the Air Force recruiting headquarters office. Hawkins visited headquarters and explained the situation to a helpful lieutenant colonel, who personally saw to the submission of his application packet. Shortly thereafter, he was accepted into Officer Training School.
“My (college) graduation was on a Saturday, but I got picked up for OTS and my class date was so soon that I couldn’t even make it to graduation,” Hawkins recalled. “The morning of my graduation, I started driving to OTS.”
Although Hawkins had hoped to enter OTS as an aviator, he was instead offered a navigator spot. Grateful for a placement that would get him off the ground, he accepted the position.
It was during navigator training that he met a young child who sparked his desire to work with youths, encouraging them to make positive choices. This young man, who lived with his grandmother, was having behavioral issues. Hawkins began taking him to the gym on base to play basketball. The two often spoke of the importance of making good decisions that would have a positive impact on the future.
Although Hawkins made a permanent-change-of-station move shortly thereafter, the experience cemented his desire to serve as an advocate for youths.
After performing reconnaissance missions during several deployments as a navigator, Hawkins craved the opportunity to get closer to the action. He went to speak with his commander about beginning the process of becoming an air liaison officer.
ALOs serve as the primary airpower adviser to the Army ground commander. Their frontline combat position is crucial to success of the mission, as it helps commanders to integrate battlefield operations and close-air support in conjunction with one another.
“I told my commander I wanted to go be an ALO, and he sat across from me and said ‘There’s no way you’re going to go be an ALO. You might as well just get comfortable here.’”
Again, Hawkins refused to accept defeat. He volunteered as the base aircraft scheduler, where he was responsible for creating and executing the entire flying schedule for Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. This gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his ability level to base leadership and earned him a position as an ALO.
During his first deployment to Afghanistan as an ALO, Hawkins said that while he felt closer to the action, he felt something was still missing. He decided that what he really wanted was to become a motivational speaker to educate youths on the power of choice and the importance of working hard to achieve their goals and dreams.
Recognizing that he needed to improve his skills, Hawkins joined the public speaking organization Toastmasters International. He worked diligently to improve his delivery skills, and he began contacting local school districts and volunteering to speak to their students.
During his speaking engagements, Hawkins discusses what it takes to become an extraordinary individual, by taking an active role in making positive decisions that affect one’s future. He calls this “the power of choice.”
“The majority of the people in this world are ordinary. These people live ordinary lives, but they’re not really happy,” Hawkins said. “They don’t enjoy their jobs and relationships, and just kind of go through life.”
“But then there are these people who love life,” he continued. “They have jobs that they really enjoy, that are fulfilling. They have great relationships with their families. What’s the difference between ordinary and extraordinary? It’s that extraordinary people do those things that ordinary people are unwilling to do.”
Hawkins encourages students to think about their futures and plan for success from an early age. But he also reminds them that, at any point in their lives, they can decide to make choices that can change their lives for the better.
While the Air Force has provided Hawkins with a wealth of experiences, he and his Family recently decided that they are being led in a different direction. Hawkins will soon separate from the Air Force to start a nonprofit organization to support at-risk teens.
“I want to teach young kids to build kit airplanes,” he said. “These are real airplanes that come in pieces from the factories. You assemble them, and they are a complete flyable airplane. Then (we will) teach the kids how to fly these airplanes. What an amazing thing for a 16- or 17-year-old kid who was headed in the wrong direction to change it around.”
By uniting youths in a shared mission, Hawkins said he believes they will develop the confidence and motivation to make choices that will help them to succeed in every aspect of their lives.
“If you are really passionate about something, you will make it work,” he said. “If you learn how to do something, you learn how to be motivated and responsible, you will figure it out.”