In May 2004, Gary Hawkins, 53, had been in Iraq less than two months when he received some of the best news of his career -- and some of the worst news of his life.
A civilian engineer of the New Orleans District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Hawkins was given responsibility for $12 billion in U.S. reconstruction projects in Iraq. But that same month, he received bad news from home. "I was halfway through my (four-month) tour and my wife was diagnosed with cancer," Hawkins recalls.
He was stunned. They had been married for 26 years; they met as college students in Boston. A native of Greensboro, N.C., he grew up in Philadelphia. She was born and raised in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. They married in 1977.
She was still in college when he graduated and moved to New Orleans in 1978 to accept a job offer from the Corps of Engineers here. She graduated and eventually began working at a local bank. The couple had a daughter, who is now 22.
Now, his wife was seriously ill. She would require treatment. And the couple made a decision: Hawkins would stay in Iraq.
"My wife is real strong," he says, proudly. "I had a personal situation but my situation was no more special than anybody else (in Iraq). My wife had total, fantastic family support." His sisters traveled to New Orleans to help out while he was away.
When he first arrived in Baghdad, Hawkins talked to his wife twice a day -- once in the morning and once at night. And he spent a lot of time reassuring his family that he was OK. He worked in the heavily fortified "Green Zone." And when he ventured out some three times a week to meet with Iraqi officials on his construction projects, he rode in an armored convoy. He wore a Kevlar helmet, battle fatigues and flak jackets, but because he was a civilian, he was not allowed to carry a weapon.
He felt "insulated" from the car bombings and the angry street demonstrations his family saw on television. And none of his construction projects had been attacked during his four-month tour. Yes, there were roadside explosions or "pop bombs" as the Iraqis called them. "But there were no occasions of direct fire," he says. But his family remained fearful until he returned home in July. "I felt guilty being over in Iraq because you put your family in a situation," he says. "I'm still dealing with the pressure I put on them."
In early 2004, Hawkins answered a call for civilian employees of the Corps to head to Iraq for reconstruction projects. Looking back, he cited several reasons for volunteering. He wanted to help the Iraqi people. In addition, the call for volunteers came from someone Hawkins had long admired -- Maj. Gen. Ronald Johnson, commander of all Corps of Engineers operations in Iraq and one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the history of the Corps. Finally, after 25 years as an engineer in New Orleans, Hawkins wanted a challenge. "I had not worked in another location. I often wondered if I could do a good job somewhere else," he says.
When he first arrived in Iraq, he oversaw U.S. reconstruction projects in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum of 2 million people in a 12-square-mile area. At first, he was responsible for oversight of millions of dollars in contracts for street refurbishment, drinking water system construction and sewer line installations. The sewerage project alone could help save countless children from disease.
"I saw sewerage in the street two feet high, from curb to curb -- with solid waste," he says, cringing. "You had little kids playing in this [street] while shop vendors sat nearby acting like nothing was going on. Our aim was to move waste from the front of people's homes and to employ as many Iraqi people as possible (for the project)."
And he had to race the clock. Iraq's brutal summer months would bring temperatures of up to 130 degrees.
Then the No. 2 person in the Corps' Iraq operation suddenly became ill and had to return to the United States. The loss of the Deputy Program Manager was a major blow. The Corps' needed someone already in-country who could quickly assume the command until a replacement could be sent from the States.
Gary Hawkins stepped up. After two months in Baghdad's worst slum, he was given temporary command of all Corps' reconstruction projects in Iraq, which as of Dec. 21 included 343 schools, 57 health care centers, 75 kilometers of roads, and the renovation of 12 hospitals and railroad stations around the country. He reported directly to top Corps generals daily on the progress of projects around the country. "We awarded about $20 million in contracts in the last month alone that I was there," he says. By the time Hawkins left Baghdad, the waste had been cleared from the street in Sadr City, where he first saw the Iraqi children playing. Though some sewer lines had collapsed, streets were being refurbished. By Dec. 15, Corps-supervised reconstruction projects employed more than 100,000 people. "I met a lot of good folks -- Iraqi people," he says. "Their desire was to rebuild their country themselves."