Former Miss America Sharlene Wells Hawkes is helping warriors heal from the trauma of war and share their experiences with others as she promotes the Remember My Service program. This for-profit program provides an interactive DVD of service-member and unit videos, photographs, records and a diary that are presented to each warrior.
On Sept. 15, 1984, Mrs. Hawkes, who loved Cinderella and always wondered about being a princess, was crowned Miss America at the 58th annual Miss America pageant. A native of Paraguay, she became the first foreign-born and bilingual Miss America in the pageant's history.
Mrs. Hawkes is the daughter of a prominent international banker and a senior ecclesiastical leader for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her father was stationed around the world. She spent her formative years in Ecuador, Mexico, Chile and Argentina. She learned the value of faith, service to country and love of America from her parents, Robert E. Wells and Helen Walser.
"My dad was in the Navy, and I have four uncles who, between the four of them, served 94 years in the Air Force," said Mrs. Hawkes in an interview with The Washington Times. "Two of them were shot down during World War II and one of them was a POW. I have been to enough memorial services and spent time with enough wounded warriors to fully absorb the cost of their service, and when someone is filled with enough gratitude, it turns into a passion."
Mrs. Hawkes and her husband, Bob, have four children and live in Utah, where she balances the demands of a busy mother and her career. The former ESPN sportscaster is currently the chief marketing officer of StoryRock Inc., a provider of core technology for interactive and print archiving. For the past four years, Mrs. Hawkes has served as president of its military division, Remember My Service.
"One of my kids had this interactive yearbook by StoryRock, a company where Sharlene is a partner," said U.S. Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Peter S. Cooke, a retired commanding general of the 96th Regional Readiness Command in Salt Lake City. He was a catalyst for the creation of the Remember My Service program. "I wanted a living history that memorialized the mobilization experiences of my soldiers and their families that went beyond a mere yearbook," Gen. Cooke said.
"I envisioned a tool that would bring a therapeutic closure to the wartime experiences of my soldiers and a legacy for them and their survivors," he said. "This program will keep the story and experiences alive of the sacrifices our solders have made. We have to tell our story because no one else will."
The Remember My Service program is performed on an individual level and unit level. On the individual level, warriors from each unit are given DVDs and diaries meant to capture meaningful memories and moments of time at war. This includes videos, photographs and short essays. On the unit level, a historian adds the same type of content but from the viewpoint of the entire unit. DVDs and diaries are then distributed to each warrior with the content from all members combined into one disk and one book.
Mrs. Hawkes strongly agrees with Gen. Cooke's assessment regarding the therapeutic value of Remember My Service. The increasing numbers of suicides, divorces and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that many of America's returning veterans and their families are in the midst of a crisis.
"Previous generations didn't talk much about their war experiences," Mrs. Hawkes said. "An increasing number of mental health professionals have indicated that it is essential for our stressed service members to process their experiences by recording their history. This is something that is way beyond a 'nice to have;' it is 'a must-have.' "
In the past, many veterans internalized their war experiences, specifically in regard to traumatic events that occurred on the battlefield. Sharing painful memories can provide an emotional release that may mitigate some of the harmful effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I was blown away at how much it [the Remember My Service program] helped us process our experiences overseas. At the time I was grief-stricken over losing two of our comrades to suicide. I felt that if when we returned they could have undergone this experience that I literally stumbled upon, that perhaps they would not have been lost," said Army 2nd Lt. Liana Mayo, an Iraq war veteran, in a letter to Mrs. Hawkes. "I fully believe in the potential of this project ... as being so critical in the healing process that it can save lives."
In order to obtain a thorough understanding of the stories of dedication and sacrifice of America's war veterans, Mrs. Hawkes traveled to Balad, Iraq, with the reluctant and concerned approval of her family.
"When I met our soldiers and airmen in Iraq, I felt gratitude, pride and awe," said Mrs. Hawkes. "They are well-trained, they're disciplined, but what I wasn't expecting was when we were with the mayor and city council of Balad, our soldiers were some of the best diplomats I have ever been with."
Mrs. Hawkes reported that the soldiers she encountered displayed a familiarity with Iraqi customs and demonstrated great respect for the various Iraqi politicians they met - many of whom were grateful for American support. While Mrs. Hawkes was in Balad, she also experienced several instances of love and gratitude from Iraqis toward Americans. She was greeted by a class of 12-year-old Iraqi girls with hugs, kisses and words of "thank you" and "I love you." She also witnessed a young Iraqi family naming their new baby after their favorite American warrior.
Mrs. Hawkes returned from Iraq with an even greater appreciation for sharing the stories of America's latest generation of war heroes.
"As a television producer and reporter, I know almost better than anyone how critical it is to provide information that will keep viewers engaged and present it in a format that makes them care about what you're telling them," Mrs. Hawkes said.
The Utah, North Carolina and Ohio National Guard are using the Remember My Service program, as are several other major military organizations and corporate sponsors.
Mrs. Hawkes said that U.S. service members deserve more than memories of their sacrifices. And for those who do not return, their families deserve more than a flag and medal to remember a fallen loved one.
"When we present them with their historical record, we give them a meaningful gift of recognition that reminds them for the rest of their lives why they served, who they served with and what sacrifices were made. This is more than a history. This is their legacy," said Mrs. Hawkes.
• Col. Terry Fobbs is a writer from Mason, Mich. He is a retired Army Reserve officer and decorated combat veteran.