Austin Hawk, center, with friends Bryce Armstrong, left, and Brent Grijalva, near Chino, California, in 2018. “The bois,” as the friends called themselves, dreamed of co-founding a technology company. (Brent Grijalva)

Austin Hawk’s family in particular knew he was counting the days until his military contract was up. When a military chaplain in a crisp uniform arrived at his grandmother’s door last June in southern California, she thought he was bringing some kind of farewell praise.

The chaplain carried a different message. The 21-year-old Hawk, a soldier stationed in Georgia, was killed, it was said – not in combat or in an accident, but stabbed in his own barracks room in Fort Stewart.

The alleged attacker, as the family would later learn, was a former soldier from Hawk’s platoon who had walked unchallenged through an unmanned installation gate to carry out what prosecutors called a conspiracy to silence Hawk over reporting misconduct bring.

“I was devastated,” said Sandra Hodge, Hawk’s grandmother, in an interview. “It left a huge hole in our lives. And I’ll never get that full. “

This episode, this week a year ago, messed up the family’s grief: How could a soldier who witnessed alleged crimes be killed at a military base by a man who came off the street?

The Fort Stewart murder prompted a basic security check and the installation of a eight-foot fence and barbed wire on the gate that the suspect allegedly entered, the Army said. The review uncovered two other safety concerns that were being addressed, an official said. But the Army has not yet opened an investigation into any command decisions that may have revealed Hawk’s role as a witness to drug use in his unit or security issues at the facility.

“I believe the army was to blame for his murder,” said his mother, Julie Hawk.

In a statement, the army said it was relying on numerous measures to protect its sprawling facilities, including security guards, electronic surveillance and natural terrain. Major General Antonio Aguto, the commander of the Third Infantry Division based in Fort Stewart, oversees “continuous” safety assessments.

“At the time the suspect allegedly entered Fort Stewart, the facility was in compliance with regulations and guidelines regarding the facility’s physical security measures,” said Lt. Col. Lindsey Elder, a department spokeswoman, in the statement.

Hawk, who grew up in California and Arizona, joined the Army in July 2017, and a welcome change came over him, his family said.

“The army made him a man. It made him more focused and determined, ”said Julie Hawk.

Austin Hawk was a model soldier and very popular with the 92nd Chemical Company, where his unit was trained to handle hazardous materials on the battlefield, Army officials said.

In a Facebook post two days after Hawk’s death, a soldier who served with him reported on a field exercise that was interrupted by the early morning news of the birth of his own son. Hawk reassured his comrade, carried his heavy backpack, and looked for a way to get him home quickly.

“That’s the guy who Hawk was,” wrote the soldier. “He would put the needs of others above his own.”

Hawk took online college classes in his spare time and planned to move back to Arizona after his army contract expired in late 2020. He and two friends who had bonded in high school over complicated family issues planned to quit electrical engineering degrees and dreamed of co-founding a tech company, said Bryce Armstrong, part of the trio they called “the bois”. He waited longingly for Hawk to arrive in the west.

“We made a decision to start our own family,” said Armstrong. “Three brothers against the world.”

The alleged conspiracy to “silence” Hawk wrote prosecutors after he reported alleged wrongdoing by two other soldiers on his platoon. Byron Booker, 28, a corporal, was charged with unprofessional conduct and mistreatment of subordinates. Hawk also accused Jordan Brown, a 21-year-old private individual, of drug use.

Hawk saw things in black and white, said his father Andrew Hawk. “Unfortunately that killed him.”

This description of the events that led to Hawk’s death on June 17, 2020 is taken from court and autopsy documents; Interviews with Hawk’s friends; and details of two people who knew of an April call between Army officials, a federal attorney, and Julie Hawk. Booker and Brown’s attorneys and a federal attorney declined to comment, citing ongoing legal proceedings.

Booker was kicked out of the army weeks before the assassination. Brown stayed in the army, and prosecutors claim he discussed plans to get a key card to Hawk’s barracks room.

The night before his death, Hawk played the online video game Call of Duty with Brent Grijalva, the third member of the bois, Grijalva said. Nothing was exceptional. After a few digital games, they said goodbye.

A few hours later, around midnight, Booker parked his car on the western edge of Fort Stewart near Gate 7, one of several access points to the facility that prosecutors and Army officials said was unmanned at night.

The gate, which allows authorized soldiers and civilians to enter the base, was designed to restrict the traffic of vehicles with a movable barrier that a pedestrian could easily bypass – a possibility that appears to be overlooked by base security officers , but allegedly was taken advantage of by Bucher.

“We didn’t expect people to get through there,” said Col. Alric Francis, who previously commanded Hawks’ brigade, on the call in April. “I think if you walk around it, you’re in.”

Booker walked about a mile to the barracks, climbed a flight of stairs, and entered Room 208, according to the indictment.

According to court records, it is unclear whether Hawk opened the door or whether his attacker used a key card to enter. Hawk was stabbed 40 times, including blows through his lungs and brain, an autopsy later revealed.

Booker left Fort Stewart on foot, presumably through the same gate, and discarded the clothes he had been wearing, according to the indictment. He was arrested the next day. Brown, who was expelled from the army in October, was arrested in April on charges by the grand jury.

Both men face numerous felony charges in federal court, including willful murder, the murder of a service member and retaliation against a witness, prosecutors said.

The Army has not opened a formal investigation to determine whether commanders should be held responsible for Hawk’s death. Civilian law enforcement officials have asked the Army to hold back investigations into how Hawk’s identity as a witness was revealed until prosecutors move forward on their case, an Army official at Fort Stewart said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing case.

The army is “obliged to. . . Take action against what we learn from law enforcement, ”the official said.

The military can also investigate potential command errors that made Gate 7 exploitable, but the official said there were no issues with the gate identified in a 2018 installation vulnerability assessment.

“It is puzzling that they should point to a pre-incident review that showed it was okay,” said Rachel VanLandingham, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. “Of course it’s not okay.”

Hawk’s family have commended the army for providing assistance through a military connection and commended some leaders for their efforts. But answers to basic questions were elusive. “As for the information, it was zero,” said Andrew Hawk.

Julie Hawk took a more critical approach. Her other son is in need of extensive medical care, and she envisioned Austin helping with family responsibilities when he returned. Now she has turned to online donations to help cover the cost.

Her home had been ravaged by serial letters from lawmakers and army officials describing Hawk as a hero, she said, a word that annoyed her.

“My son wasn’t a hero,” she said. “My son went to bed with the intention of waking up.”

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