CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Ever since she joined the Army Reserve, Staff Sgt. Sarah Hawley strived to become a top-tier paralegal noncommissioned officer -- she developed legal expertise, advanced her education, and honed her leadership skills.
Now, she has set the bar for all paralegals. For the first time, the Army's premier paralegal award has been conferred on an Army Reserve Soldier.
Hawley, a training NCO with the U.S. Army Reserve Legal Command, was honored as this year's winner of the Sgt. Eric L. Coggins Award for Excellence at a ceremony on May 16, 2017, at The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School, in Charlottesville, VA.
The presiding officer, Maj. Gen. Thomas E. Ayres, Deputy Judge Advocate General, presented the award saying that, like Sgt. Coggins, in every aspect of her life Staff Sgt. Hawley gave it her all -- as Soldier, scholar, and athlete, and leader.
"This is the kind of attitude she has brought to our Corps," he said.
AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE
This prestigious award is bestowed annually on the top Army paralegal who best exemplifies the superb legal skills and outstanding leadership set by Sgt. Coggins.
Recognized early for his ability, Coggins was selected to be the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of an entire legal office in Korea while still a junior Soldier. He later deployed to Kuwait where he supervised the Camp Doha Legal Office. His awards include the Meritorious Service Medal and the Legion of Merit. Following his death, the Army JAG Corps in 1997 established the award in his remembrance.
Past award winners have distinguished themselves as field grade officers, warrant officers, Sergeants Major, and Chief Paralegal NCOs. During the ceremony, the attendees viewed a biopic of Sgt. Coggins' life and career, highlighting his many accomplishments and indomitable spirit. His mother, Janice Waugh, was present at the ceremony.
Hawley expressed her appreciation and deep gratitude.
"I am very humbled and incredibly honored to receive this award," she said. "Knowing the high caliber paralegals in the Army JAG Corps who are equally deserving of this award, I am still shocked and amazed and feel a tremendous obligation to live up to all this award stands for."
In evocative and often stirring remarks, Hawley credited her success in the Army to her empowering religious faith and the solid support of her family. She also named several leaders who were key to her professional development.
"In fairness, this award belongs not only to me, but to all the leaders who placed their trust in me," she said. "Today, I proudly accept it on their behalf and hold it in trust for them."
Command Sgt. Maj. Marcus F. Montoya served on the committee that chose this year's Coggins Award winner. "Staff Sgt. Hawley has demonstrated that a great Soldier is a great Soldier regardless of which component he or she serves in," he said. "Her accomplishments as a Soldier are impressive."
"But it was her accomplishments in civilian life that ended up giving her the edge in the competition."
Besides being a first-rate NCO, Hawley is also a talented academic with a passion for higher education, who regularly volunteers her time in the service of others.
Since her first assignment, she has earned a baccalaureate degree with top honors from George Mason University, a 40-hour post-baccalaureate medical certificate from Georgetown University, and a Master's degree in Biotechnology from The Johns Hopkins University.
Averaging a 4.0 GPA, she has garnered numerous scholastic honors, including membership in Phi Beta Kappa. She has been accepted to attend medical school at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, MD. Hawley is the co-author of "Wellbeing in the Military," a chapter in a psychology textbook to be published this year.
She also yearns to give back to the community by serving the needy. She volunteers as a tutor at inner city schools, and performs missionary work in Kenya and the Dominican Republic.
SETTING THE BAR
Many senior leaders attended the ceremony to witness Staff Sgt. Hawley's historic achievement. Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph P. Lister, the JAG Corps Regimental CSM, noted that this years award is a game changer.
Before Staff Sgt. Hawley, the JAG Corps leadership was urged to develop a separate award for Reserve Component Soldiers based on the claim that "Reserve Soldiers could not compete on equal footing with the accomplishments of active duty Soldiers," he said.
"What Staff Sgt. Hawley demonstrates is that every Soldier regardless of component can compete," he said. "I would argue that she has raised the bar for any future Soldier, regardless of component, who may be considered for the Sergeant Eric L. Coggins Award for Excellence."
Hawley's family expressed great pride in her accomplishment.
"Sarah has always been a standout student athlete who worked very hard and never met a challenge she couldn't face," said Dianne Hawley of her daughter. "As a wrestler in middle school she had the grit and skill to beat boys in tournaments; in high school she helped her team go to the state basketball championships; and in college she was a track-and-field star, who still holds a top-10 record."
"Sarah continues to amaze us in everything she does," said Randy Hawley. "We are so proud of her."
EXCEPTIONAL MILITARY AND PARALEGAL SKILLS
For over ten years, Hawley has served as an Army Reserve paralegal and court reporter. She began her career with the 151st Legal Operations Detachment (LOD) in Alexandria, VA. From 2008 to 2012, she mobilized with the Office of Military Commissions in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC.
She is Airborne and Air Assault qualified. At Guantanamo Bay, she served on many high-profile trials, including those of the 9/11 co-conspirators.
An avid runner, Hawley regularly runs marathons, half-marathons, and tough-mudders. She has scored the maximum 300 points on every physical fitness test since 2008.
Hawley currently serves with the U.S. Army Reserve Legal Command, which is headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about 25 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. The Legal Command has 1,800 personnel stationed in 104 cities in 43 states in the continental U.S. and two overseas locations.
As the training NCO, Hawley has been integral to the planning and execution of many of the Legal Command's training events. Most recently, she served as the NCOIC of a week-long functional exercise at Fort Dix, NJ. She coordinated the training, housing, food, weapons, and ammunition for more than 300 individuals. The exercise included live fire, urban operations, land navigation, obstacle courses, and defense support of civil authorities training.
Hawley has always strived to emulate the many great officers, warrant officers, and noncommissioned officers she met during her career.
"While at the 151st LOD, OMC, the 82d Airborne Division, and the Legal Command, I had been privileged to serve with the best leaders the Army has -- period," she said. "Being a strong, compassionate NCO whom junior Soldiers could respect has been one of my life's goals."
She was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for her achievement and received numerous challenge coins from commanders, command sergeants major, and sergeants major. The JAG Association of Legal Paraprofessionals presented Hawley an NCO Sword. Brig. Gen. William W. Way, Director, Govt. Relations and Acting Dep. Chief of Staff, G-1, presented Hawley a coin from the Office of the Chief, Army Reserve. He also read her a congratulatory letter from Lt. Gen. Charles D. Luckey.
FAMILY OF VETERANS
Hawley hails from Roanoke, VA. Her family has long-valued military service and is intensely patriotic.
"Growing up, I heard the stories of heroism and was in awe of the stark sacrifices servicemembers have to make to protect our country," Hawley said. "By joining the Army after 9/11, I just wanted to make a positive contribution, some small difference to make our country safer."
Her paternal grandfather, Warren Hawley, was a World War II veteran and a firefighter for 40 years. Her maternal grandfather, George Hutchinson, served in the United States Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A cousin is an Infantry officer. They all inspired her to join the military, she said.
Hutchinson was very proud of his granddaughter's momentous achievement. "When Sarah said she joined the Army, I knew she would go on to do great things," he said. "She has the toughness, the drive, and the talent to be the best, and today she proved it."