COVINGTON - In 1976, Willie Hawk left Covington to see the world.
On Thursday, he came home again.
Now a decorated Naval commander, Hawk is retiring from the military after 31 years of service.
During that time he has visited 32 countries and served at more than a dozen duty stations, including the Office of Military Cooperation in Kuwait.
Among Hawk's many accolades are the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the third highest award bestowed upon members of the military by the U.S. Department of Defense.
He has also received the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, the Joint Service Achievement Medal, the Navy Achievement Medal and various service and campaign ribbons.
His retirement ceremony on Feb. 9 at the Navy Operational Support Center in Marietta drew more than 200 supporters from Covington, and on Thursday, Mayor Kim Carter signed a proclamation declaring Feb. 28 "Commander Willie Hawk Day."
The proclamation reads, in part, "Covington is proud of its native son and his accomplishments and service to our Country."
Carter said she wanted to honor Hawk during Black History Month because "this is an important moment in our history.
"We're very proud of you and your historic accomplishments," she said.
Hawk graduated from Newton High School in 1976 and enlisted in the Navy that same year.
He said he saw the military as "an opportunity to get out and see the world."
See the world he did, traveling to 32 countries, including Egypt, Greece, Greenland, Iceland, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Hawk is a Navy Mustang, meaning he was an officer promoted up the ranks from enlisted personnel through an in-service procurement program.
He received his commission through the Limited Duty Officer program while serving as Yeoman 1st Class with Attack Squadron 87, home-ported in Cecil Field, Fla.
Limited Duty Officers are commissioned as Naval Officers to serve as technical managers.
Hawk completed deployments to the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea aboard the USS Independence while with the Squadron and upon his commission, was transferred to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 62 in Gulfport, Miss. where he served as administrative department head. During his tour with the battalion he deployed to Rota, Spain; Sigonella, Sicily; and the island of Guam.
In 1989, Hawk was transferred to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where he served as administrative officer and administrative department head. He next assumed duties as officer in charge of personnel support detachment in King's Bay, Ga. Following his OIC tour, he reported on board USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, home ported in Norfolk, Va., in 1995 to serve as administrative department head.
In November 1997 he was assigned to a joint tour with the Office of Military Cooperation in Kuwait where he served as an advisor to the Kuwait Armed Forces. Following tours in Ocean Virginia, Va. and Camp Smith, Hawaii, he accepted a command joint tour as headquarters commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.
Since April 2006, he has served at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center in Fallon, Nev., where he is administrative, personnel and manpower department head.
Hawk said he never thought he'd stay in the Navy for 31 years when he enlisted as a teenager.
"It just stuck," he said.
His most memorable travels include Australia, whose natives he calls, "some of the friendliest people in the world," and England, where he and his wife spent their 20th anniversary.
Though Hawk has rubbed elbows with the likes of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, and former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, he's most grateful for "the huge number of people I've had the opportunity to impact."
Working primarily in human resources, Hawk said he's watched personnel move up the ranks, and he's proud to have had a part in that.
"I love being a teacher, a trainer and mentor," he said.
Hawk is married to the former Connie M. Jackson, also a Covington native. Their son Quintaurus surprised the couple by driving in from Smyrna to be at the proclamation signing Thursday morning.
"He's always supported me," he said of his father.
Quintaurus served four years in the Navy; his father officiated at his swearing-in ceremony.
The couple also has a daughter, Shantee, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va.
Hawk said he planned to spend the rest of the day named in his honor playing with his grandson, Darius, 1, who is visiting from Virginia.
As for the more distant future, that's not settled yet.
Hawk remains on active duty until March 1, so his retirement is not yet official.
The couple is looking to settle down in Duluth, and Hawk hopes to continue to work in the human resources field.
"I'm much, much too young to retire for real," he said.
Hawk said he'd like to partner with area schools and educate students about the Navy.
What will he tell them about his 31 years of experience? Perhaps about the most valuable gift he said he received for his service - "a love of people."
"I've had the opportunity to travel all over the world, meeting people of all different cultures. I think I found out we are much more similar than different," he said.
While Hawk admits his impending retirement hasn't quite sunk in, and his future remains uncertain, he knows he's ready to head toward a new horizon.
"It's been a blast. I'm ready to come home now," he said.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.