Air Force couple experiences dream wedding

  • Published
  • By Randy Roughton
  • Defense Media Activity - San Antonio
Cancer seemed as far away as a San Francisco seagull could fly as an Air Force captain danced his first dance with his new bride. Capt. Mike and Vanessa Hawkins married in a ceremony on the San Francisco waterfront May 14, and for a few weeks, they could push aside her stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma illness for a wedding won in the San Francisco Dream Wedding Giveaway.

The online contest provided the couple, she an Air Force Academy graduate and he a University of Virginia ROTC graduate, with a $100,000 wedding package that included the ceremony at a luxury waterfront hotel, custom-designed rings, a honeymoon in nearby Napa, Calif., and allowed the bride to temporarily set aside the sweatpants and T-shirts she wears for chemotherapy and radiation treatments for a white, strapless Lee Ann Belter gown. The only visible sign of the bride's stage IV Hodgkin's, which is usually widespread in the lymph nodes and other parts of the body such as lungs, liver or bone, was a bandage on her forearm.

"It was definitely like a dream," Mrs. Hawkins said just before the ceremony on the roof of Hotel Vitale, across from the Port of San Francisco. "Even what you can dream cannot be anything like this. I really don't know if I could've planned a wedding right now. This is better than I ever dreamed I could feel and I feel prettier than I ever dreamed I could look."

The couple met exactly three years earlier at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss.  Captain Hawkins was a contracting officer; his future bride worked in personnel after she was given the option of cross-training into services or separating from the Air Force. She chose to separate.  They became engaged in July 2008 and received the news of her diagnosis the day before Captain Hawkins deployed to Southwest Asia.

They survived the separation while she endured her treatments with the help of the Columbus AFB community and family. Through SKYPE video chats, Captain Hawkins shaved his head when his fiancé lost her hair because of her chemotherapy treatments. While he was deployed, she was in Wisconsin with her family, so both were apart from their friends in the squadron at Columbus.

"But they never forgot about me," she said.

Mrs. Hawkin's nurse submitted the couple in the online San Francisco Dream Wedding Giveaway, and they wrote an essay and produced a video that told the story of their relationship and her battle with Hodgkin's. The Air Force community quickly went to work, along with Mrs. Hawkin's father, Van Teskey, in Wisconsin. Captain Hawkins and his fiance were one of 350 couples in an online contest decided by website voting.

"I was getting calls from people on bases throughout the country who had heard about us," said Captain Hawkins, now a contracting officer in Chantilly, Va. "People Air Force-wide had heard about us through the global network. Even people who didn't know us were voting for us and sending it to old squadrons and church groups. They were telling people, 'This is an Air Force captain and they deserve this.'"

He returned home in November and was with his fiancé on Valentine's Day when a team of photographers and videographers appeared at his mother's home in Stafford, Va., to tell them they were named "the most inspirational couple" in the first San Francisco Dream Wedding Giveaway. Many of their Air Force friends booked their airline tickets and hotel reservations before the couple had theirs.

Liz Guthrie, a San Jose wedding consultant with the contest, who had created a non-profit organization designed to plan smaller weddings for couples like the Hawkins, said many people were inspired by the couple's story.

"We were looking for someone who was facing illness, loss or hardship to give a wedding to and the public determined the winner," she said. "Mike and Vanessa's story touched a lot of people and they won by a landslide. I think this is a great way for them to have a celebration with their family and friends and not have to think about their illness."

After their honeymoon in Napa, the couple plans to live in their Fairfax, Va., townhouse and Mrs. Hawkins will resume her treatments. But she's already thinking past the cancer, to a future that includes nursing school and a family. Captain Hawkins and his new wife are grateful to the contest sponsors and to both their families and the Air Force community for helping them have their dream wedding day on the San Francisco Bay.

"His commanders have been totally supportive and all of the spouses of people in his squadron have been incredible," Mrs. Hawkins said. "He's only been in Virginia for two weeks and everyone has already reached out to me. Then, there are all of my friends from the Academy and some of them were here for this. That's a relationship you can't build anywhere else and it's so awesome to be able to share this with them.

"The Air Force network is incredible," she said.