Charlie Hawkins has one mission left. It’s the way he’d rather be remembered than wars won or medals awarded.
“I have a desire to leave the world a better place than when I got here,” he said.
Hawkins, 91, received his latest honor Wednesday, in a pinning ceremony through Hospice & Community Care in Rock Hill. The national program recognizes veterans with a pin and flag presentation. About 25 percent of hospice patients who come through the Rock Hill facility are veterans, with pinning events scheduled almost weekly.
“This is kind of a way for us to give him final honors,” said Jennifer Graham, who plans events for Hospice & Community Care. “He has pretty much received every award you can get.”
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Lee Dye served in the Navy in Vietnam. Now a hospice chaplain, Dye oversees pinning ceremonies regularly. But few compare to the one Wednesday.
“He’s really got a history,” Dye said. “I don’t know how many war medals he has, probably upwards of 30.”
It’s 34, plus the pin. Hawkins has a collage to keep them all straight. It details the Purple Heart and related honors earned during the Battle of the Bulge, where he was second in command for a cavalry unit that snuck behind German lines and reported artillery and infrastructure positions.
His highest honor isn’t actually from the Army. It’s the Belgian Fourragere, given by royals in that country to fighters who distinguished themselves during World War II. Six decades after the famous battle, Hawkins read about his unit earning the Fourragere while he was in one of “a half a dozen hospitals” recovering from his wounds.
“I thought, I don’t know what the Fourragere is, but it might look nice in my collage,” Hawkins said.
A Belgian brigadeer general drove from Washington to present the award a decade ago, when Hawkins lived in River Hills at Lake Wylie. Hawkins lived 40 years in Lake Wylie before moving to a skilled nursing facility in Rock Hill, in December. He was married to his late wife, Beryl, for 68 years. She died in August, spending her final weeks in the same hospice facility that honored her widower Wednesday.
Theirs is one of many war stories Hawkins tells with as much humor as the subject allows. He sent Beryl a wire from his shipping out station in Boston, asking the high school sweetheart to marry him. She didn’t get the message until he was gone. She was on a date.
“She kept the wire,” Hawkins said. “In fact, we’ve still got it.”
Then there are the parents who signed off on Army service at 17 because they were “glad to get rid of me.” The story of Christmas carols sung in two languages, broken into by the story of derailing trains. Tales of how hard the fights were heading into towns, where beds and wine cellars made for better accommodations than foxholes.
“They’d have to bayonet us out of the town once we got there,” Hawkins said.
On occasion, the severity of war seeps through the stories. His unit changed its point position every half-hour, since that soldier always faced the first German shot. Hawkins radioed back installation coordinates, then how far off artillery fire missed. He once served in a platoon that lost 70 percent of its soldiers.
“That was when you were young enough and stupid enough not to realize things could get in bad shape,” Hawkins said. “When you see your friends getting killed, you realized it wasn’t a game.”
The pinning ceremonies are a way to recognize veterans while they still are alive, and often are the last honors veterans receive. Hawkins could prove an exception. He’s been winning awards all his life, including for meritorious service with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. He and Beryl patrolled Lake Wylie for years, where he also served on the Lake Wylie Marine Commission.
“I was vessel operator and she was crew,” Hawkins said. “I don’t think she liked being the crew. She said, ‘I do all the work and all you do is steer the thing.’”
Hawkins still serves as an arbitrator, helping juveniles accused of crimes avoid jail time. He’s done it for a decade and gets choked up thinking he might still help a young person straighten his path. Hawkins leads prayer at breakfast time on Sunday mornings, a staple for patients in hospice and rehab facilities. He has an eye on a nice apartment nearby at Westminster Towers. He wants to sell his Lake Wylie home and move in there to continue helping others.
“I’d like to give something back,” Hawkins said. “Life has been good to me. The Lord has been good to me.”
Daughter Pamela Lewarda said her father’s case is far different from her mother’s. Beryl spent only days in Hospice care. Nothing so imminent awaits Hawkins, but several heart attacks, lung cancer and the recent gallbladder problem have taken their toll.
“His mind is fantastic,” Lewarda said. “His body is going to out on him.”
When it does, Hawkins wants people to remember a man who gave more than he got. A lesson he learned in faith and on battlefields, one that will well outlast him.
“I learned service, and I believed in it,” Hawkins said. “I still believe in it.”
John Marks • 803-831-8166