TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
For some, life is a brightly-lit and planned out path with signs to guide every twist and turn. For others, like the 325th Fighter Wing vice commander, the path’s twists and turns remained hidden until a two-minute decision cast light on the future.
Colonel Jefferson Hawkins was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and moved around the country for most of his life. After high school in Milwaukee, he went to college at Michigan State University where a mandatory meeting set him on a path to a life of service.
“I went to Michigan State during the summer for a three-day orientation and to pick classes,” Hawkins said. “They had meetings set up all around campus, and I was told to go to one for an hour. They warned us, ‘if you don’t go we will dis-enroll you.’”
The meetings were set up for students to join clubs, take electives and get involved.
“I saw the Army ROTC brief and thought there was no way I would do that,” Hawkins said. “The closest one was an Air Force ROTC meeting, and I needed to be in one of the briefings in about two minutes, so I walked in that one.”
Joining the military never crossed Hawkins’ mind until that day.
“I didn’t even contemplate [joining], it was a complete accident,” he said with a laugh. “Originally, I thought I wanted to be a doctor.”
The Air Force ROTC briefer was convincing enough, and Hawkins signed up for at least one semester.
“They talked me into taking it for one semester as an elective,” he said. “Then, I took it for a second [semester] because I enjoyed it.”
During his time at Michigan State, Hawkins began to experience troubles financing the rest of his degree, until he was offered a scholarship from the Air Force ROTC.
It was during his time in ROTC that Hawkins met Col. Richard Shatzel, his ROTC commander and a mentor who shaped his life in a way he never thought possible.
“He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Hawkins said. “I had no aspirations to fly while I was in college, but he spent the next three years convincing me that I should and that I was the right person to fly.
“He understood me better at that time than I understood myself, and he is the most impactful mentor I have had in my career,” Hawkins added.
As the first in his family since WWII to join the military, Hawkins started his career flying the F-15C Eagle for more than eight years, after which, he switched to the F-22 Raptor. Training for both aircraft took place at Tyndall.
“This is my third time being stationed here, and I have been back through six or seven times for training,” Hawkins said.
While currently at Tyndall, the father-of-three’s plan is to focus on family, sports with his sons and being the best he can at one of “the most rewarding jobs” he has had.
“I had no drive for being a commander because I thought I would be out after the first eight years. The flying was great, but the most rewarding thing I have done was being a squadron commander and beyond,” Hawkins said. “The impact for me was far more rewarding. The flying side was phenomenal, and that’s really what I wanted to do from the time I joined, but seeing the side I didn’t envision myself on has been really rewarding.”
His focus as vice commander will be communication and concentrating on a free-flow of information that will further enable Tyndall’s ability to train and project unrivaled combat airpower.
“Communication is key, it starts at the top and ends at the bottom,” Hawkins said. “We need to get better at communication and focusing on communicating what the mission is. It doesn’t matter if you are flying the jets or maintaining them; whether you are finance or services, everyone has their role in accomplishing the mission, which is getting the F-22s in the air.
“If Airmen understand where they fit in that critical node, they will feel a lot more empowered and more rewarded at the end of the day,” he added.