Montvale native Sgt. Ryan Hawkins got a call from his friends when the New Jersey Devils announced the team’s offseason trade for Kyle Palmieri in June 2015. Hawkins had grown up with Palmieri, playing together on their borough’s travel team, Arsenal Soccer Club.
On March 17, Hawkins got to see Palmieri play in person at the Devils’ game against the Minnesota Wild at Prudential Center, where he was honored as the team’s Hero of the Game. “It feels good,” Hawkins said of the recognition. “It’s nice to get appreciated, being a small town kid, with something like this.” Hawkins added he wasn’t sure he qualified as a hero, suggesting that title belongs to the fellow troops who laid down their lives in service.
Hawkins, a fan since coming to games with his school’s D.A.R.E. program as a child, said he doesn’t know what it is about the sport, but he has always loved it. He explained that Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens and Ken Dankeyko collectively comprise his all-time favorite Devils, though that list is growing.
With Palmieri’s return, the forward became a fast favorite for the 25-year-old soldier. Since their days of playing soccer together, the two have followed different paths. Palmieri’s led him to the NHL where he was drafted on June 26, 2009, while Hawkins joined the U.S. Army, three days later.
Hawkins said he was inspired to join by the September 11 attacks. “My mother is a dispatcher, and I remember she wasn’t home for a little bit because of all the chaos that was going on,” Hawkins recalled. After asking what he could do, and being encouraged to pray, he told her he wanted to join the U.S. Army. When the time came to enlist, Hawkins said he was debating between the Army and Marine Corps, and chose based on which recruiter could make it to his house faster.
“I knew one way or another that I’d serve, but at that age, it didn’t matter.” Approximately two and a half hours after calling the services, an army recruiter arrived, and that was it. After attending basic training, Hawkins studied to become a wheel-vehicle mechanic at Fort Jackson, in South Carolina.
Six months after Hawkins enlisted, upon completing his training, he was assigned to the U.S. Army post in Vilseck, Germany. From there he was sent to Afghanistan from June 3, 2010 until June 1, 2011, where he was a rear gunner on a convoy security team. “If not every day, every other day we were on the road supporting our troops.” Hawkins said most of the year was spent on the road, but thankfully his entire convoy team made it back from Afghanistan without any casualties.
Shortly after returning from the deployment, Hawkins met his wife, Kaylee, a fellow soldier based in Germany. “She was actually in my company, and we just started hanging out. I found out she was from New Jersey, and we grew up doing the same things…One thing led to another, and we got married.”
After returning from Germany in early 2012, Hawkins was assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, where he spend the past three years, including during the April 2014 Fort Hood shooting. “I was coming back from training in California. I was locked down in the airport for a few hours before being able to go back home.
In his years of service, Hawkins has received six Army Achievement Medals, two Overseas Service Ribbons and an Afghanistan Campaign Medal. Hawkins said the campaign medal holds the most meaning for him, because it represents that he went there and did something bigger than he thought he’d do.