Chuck Hawk: A Story of Help and Recovery

The New York Times reported yesterday that The New York Sun is in a relentless fight for new investors. It may close come the end of the month. If you know anybody looking to place a major investment in a feisty New York daily call Seth Lipsky or e-mail me. With that said, I’ve got a column in the Sun that transcends money.

Las Vegas is a city that is home to many celebrities — old and young. So it’s no surprise that throngs of visitors poured into the Harmon Medical and Rehabilitation Hospital in early September. The only question the nurses and medical staff had was which patient were all those guests coming to see?

Some theorized it was a mayor or high-ranking politician. Or, in a glitzy city filled with entertainers and singers of many different eras, perhaps the patient had been one of those. It’s possible that in another culture, one less obsessed with fame and wealth, the subject of all the well-wishers could have been a celebrity in his own right.

With the economy teetering on the abyss and people on Wall Street obsessed with the bottom line and their own financial existence, Charles “Chuck” Hawk, who died of cancer on September 15, is a reminder of basic values, building blocks more fundamental than money to the foundation of our existence.

I know him because he was married to my aunt, Sandra Katz, with whom he lived for more than a decade. By trade, Hawk was an insulator. A former member of the U.S. Navy, he was a union man through-and-through. He also ran, unsuccessfully, for Nevada’s state senate eight years ago.

Most importantly, Hawk built and rebuilt lives on a personal level. A while ago, he realized he was an alcoholic. It wasn’t enough for him, though, to attend meetings regularly. He helped others get and stay clean, one person at a time and, as they say in the world of recovery, one day at a time.

Under most circumstances, I would have never gotten to see the full value in somebody like Chuck Hawk. Like everybody else, I’m preoccupied with the details of my own daily existence. Back in 2001, though, my father, Gerald Gitell, decided to leave Boston, where he had been grimly subsisting for two decades as a taxi cab driver, and move to Las Vegas. A former member of the United States Army Special Forces, he had been one of the elite “Green Berets.” A graduate of Boston University, he trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., and was shipped to Vietnam. Like most of today’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, he saw combat as well as the deaths of innocent civilians with whom he worked closely to win over to the American side of the war.

During the two decades when my family and I watched helplessly as my father lived as a kind of recluse, sleeping fitfully in a couch pinned against a wall, keeping erratic hours, and failing to escape from his prison of a life, we failed to convince him to seek help. He rejected the suggestion that he should visit a Veterans Administration facility or any other kind of therapist. And, despite his pride in his military service — a bronze Green Beret statue sat on his refrigerator for years — he avoided attending reunion events or talking to friends from the army.

A few years after his move to Las Vegas, his sister Sandra, invited him to move in with her and Hawk. That’s when Hawk got a hold of him. First, he started to tell my father about a friend, a fellow vet, who sought treatment at a place called the Veterans Center. Then, he arranged for my father to meet this friend. Finally, he convinced my father to go there and start talking about those bothersome things, a process that helped to unburden those issues for him.

Over time, my father changed. Whereas he previously avoided talking to strangers about the war, he began to attend weekly therapy sessions with other Vietnam combat veterans. Before he was almost exclusively a loner, but over time he began to dedicate himself to assisting other people, particularly younger veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Earlier this month he made sure to go to the sparsely attended funeral of a member of the 10th Mountain Division who had come home from being wounded in Afghanistan and then had taken his own life. After that, he vowed to make sure that future funerals would receive more attendees.

None of that would have happened had my father never met Hawk. And he was only one of the hundreds, if not thousands of people, to whom Hawk gave succor. Americans need more people like Hawk in the trying days ahead.

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