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A reenlistment seen round the world

Corps hopes a dramatic photo of an injured Marine's oath-taking spurs others to stay in.

July 30, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Marine Cpl. Gareth Hawkins extended his enlistment to go on a third deployment to Iraq so his battalion would not be left in the hands of rookies.

Twenty days after he arrived in Iraq for the third time, a roadside bomb exploded beneath his 7-ton truck, leaving Hawkins dazed and his heel shattered.

Minutes later, his pain held at bay by morphine, the 23-year-old asked to complete one piece of unfinished business before being rushed via ambulance to undergo surgery at the hospital at the Marine air base in Taqaddum.

He wanted to reenlist for another four-year hitch.

A photographer was nearby and took a picture of the ad hoc ceremony: Hawkins on a stretcher with his right hand in the air as officers administered the reenlistment oath.

The photograph has made the rounds of military and political opinion websites and publications, including the conservative National Review.

With both the Army and Marine Corps laboring to persuade combat veterans to stay in the service, the picture may be assuming iconic status.

The photograph is in the office of Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, the Marine Corps' top enlisted leader, who may use it as he tries to persuade other young Marines to stay on.

Hawkins, a machine-gunner by training, is recuperating from surgery at Naval Medical Center San Diego after previous surgeries at military hospitals in Iraq and Germany.

More surgery and months of therapy lie ahead before he can shed his wheelchair.

Still, the naturalized U.S. citizen, who was born in Hong Kong of British parents, said he was eager to get back to his squad in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment. He's thinking of applying to become an officer.

He brushes off the popularity of the photograph.

"My wife says I'm famous, but I don't really think so," he said.

Like most Marines who have served in Iraq, Hawkins had been in other convoys that were hit by roadside bombs.

But the blast on June 29 in Karma, north of Baghdad, was the first to explode directly below his vehicle.

The mission was routine: taking water, food and supplies to Marines at an outpost. The route had been heavily traveled previously without incident.

"I heard the blast and suddenly everything went black," Hawkins said. "Both of my feet went numb. The side of the 7-ton was annihilated; and when we rolled to a stop, everybody was yelling, 'Are you OK?' "

Although shrapnel had not pierced his skin, it was clear that the bones in his right heel were broken. Hawkins and two other wounded Marines were taken to a forward operating base.

Marine Corps culture stresses ritual, and reenlistment ceremonies often include fanfare, speeches, flags, music and sometimes a reception afterward.

Not this time.

"We're going to do the short version of this," Maj. Kevin Gonzales, the battalion's executive officer, told Hawkins.

A lieutenant was summoned. Someone found a copy of the enlistment oath. The words were spoken and Hawkins was carried to the ambulance and off to Taqaddum, where Navy surgeons were waiting.

To entice Marines to reenlist, the Marine Corps offers a $10,000 to $80,000 bonus and a choice of initial duty station -- although no Marine can be assured that he or she won't be sent to Iraq at some point. Larger bonuses are for key specialties, such as intelligence.

Hawkins is getting a $41,000 bonus that will be tax-exempt because he reenlisted in a war zone.

With a little more than two months remaining in the fiscal year, the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine division has reached 90% of its reenlistment goal.

Master Sgt. William Canfield, a career retention specialist, said he was confident that the picture of Hawkins would help him close the gap.

"It just motivates all the Marines," Canfield said. "They see that Marine on a stretcher with his hand in the air and they say, 'Check out that hard dog.' "

After surgery in Taqaddum, Hawkins traveled the route that many wounded Marines and soldiers being evacuated by airlift from Iraq to the U.S. must take: Al Asad to Mosul to Balad to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and finally to Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Once in the U.S., he went through a number of air bases before arriving two weeks ago at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego's Balboa Park.

Hawkins' wife, Charlotte, and their children -- 7-week-old Aidan and Patrick, 2 -- will soon move into an apartment at Camp Pendleton. While he was deployed in Iraq, the family stayed in Spokane, Wash.

For the first weeks after being wounded, Hawkins replayed the incident in his head. He had been the convoy commander, meaning he was responsible for ensuring the safety of the other Marines in the vehicle.

"I keep thinking, did I do my job right? Did I not look to the side? Was I making a joke when I should have been looking for IEDs," he said, referring to improvised explosive devices.

After living in Hong Kong and London, Hawkins moved to Tracy, Calif., as a teenager. There, he dabbled in poetry, including verse about the transformative effect of watching a comet:

Comets blaze across the open sky

as ordinary

People get on with their lives.

As we look out onto the horizon

for eternity, the

Comet burns up.

We're different, experienced.

He could have been describing his time in Iraq, where he has watched buddies die and seen his own resolve grow.

As for his unusual reenlistment, it's no big deal, he said. Lots of other Marines have made bigger sacrifices. On his chest, Hawkins has a tattoo with the names of two buddies killed in the late 2004 battle in Fallouja.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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