Earlier this year Knightsville resident Todd Howard celebrated military service totaling two decades—he’s served his country off-and-on since 1990. Though it’s not a life he regrets, it’s also not a life that’s been easy—one filled with memories and moments that have shaped the man he is today and puts more meaning behind the national anthem when he hears it play.
From an overseas mission in Iraq that injured him to cleaning up a terror attack on his country’s soil, the New York native has seen first-hand the rampage of war.
Howard moved to the Lowcountry with his wife Jennifer and three daughters about four years ago and has boasted time in not just one military branch, but two: Navy and the National Guard, even serving two separate divisions of the Guard—Army and Air Force.
Howard currently serves in the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th civil engineering squadron. He transferred from the 109th air wing in Scotia, New York—a unit he entered in 2009.
But Howard’s patriotic appointment started much earlier, at age 17. Not yet a legal adult, he had his mother sign the papers for him.
Howard said he chose a path many of his relatives also walked but not one many in his senior class similarly saw fit to follow.
“I’m fifth-generation military...something I always knew that I was going to do,” Howard said. “When (classmates) were doing college recruiting and taking ACTs and SATs, I never even took those tests because I knew I was going into the military.”
Howard started out in the Navy 37 years ago and served for two years until he said he returned home for personal matters. In 1995 he said he rejoined the military life with the Army National Guard.
It was during that next decade of his life with the squadron that Howard encountered his first and only deployment and injured his knee during a fall from a vehicle. He said he wasn’t able to retreat to a medical facility until he had completed his mission four days later.
The injury forced Howard stateside to recover, and shortly after, in 2005, he left the Army National Guard. But he missed his men—the team he had trained and cared for like family; and he expressed his regret in not being alongside them when they deployed again.
“I had an extremely difficult time...because those were my kids, ones I had trained and I had prepared to be able to go off and do their job in a combat operations, and I wasn’t there with them,” Howard said. “Thankfully none of them were injured or killed while deployed because I’m not sure I could have lived with myself after that.”
Watching her husband continuously long for the Guard, Howard’s wife finally urged him back into the service.
“It was at that point my wife said, ‘I don’t know what it is that you do when you’re in uniform, but you’ve got to get back to it because being away from it is killing you,’” Howard said.
In response he joined the Air National Guard in 2009. But for the last decade his day-to-day job has been with the postal service.
In addition to visiting seven different countries, Howard’s military moments have been somber and bittersweet—even humorous at times. He still laughs when he tells the story of a near ambush his men encountered one night in the Iraqi desert. But militants weren’t the threat—about 40 camels were.
“You see all those shapes and sizes in a distance,” Howard said.
His unit had been on a mission to shut down a camp and move all the gear to a new location, but on the way they came to a crossroads where they spotted the silhouette of a large crowd they thought they might not survive.
“Off in the distance we see a very large mob,” Howard said.
The men had also just fueled up at a stop where someone warned them of possible gunshots in the area—forcing their adrenaline to rise.
“Everybody’s heart is racing because I’m looking at this mob...and there’s only four of us with our M-16s. I told everybody, ‘Nobody shoot until I say so,’” Howard said.
He flipped the military vehicle’s lights on at 60 mph and that’s when the men spotted their non-human enemy.
“I started to giggle,” Howard said. “The adrenaline was finally starting to settle down (and) the reality that everybody was safe and everything was OK; and we giggled and giggled and giggled. You laugh so you don’t cry. There’s been a lot of not-so-good memories, but that was one that definitely could’ve ended differently.”
Howard also remembered how the main thing that kept him strong and his homesickness at bay was a Build-A-Bear his daughter Mikayla—just 4 at the time—made for him. He kept it with him on his travels and often hit the button on the hand that played his daughter’s voice.
“Whenever anybody was feeling homesick they would come and find Howie and his bear, and I would push that (button),” he said. “Even though that was my family, the message was for all of us; I never went anywhere without that bear. I told her when I left, ‘When I come home I’ll bring this home to you,’ and when I came home, coming off the bus, I had it in my hand.”
As for those no-so-good memories—those were contained in the weeks Howard sifted day-after-day through the Twin Towers’ rubble.
"The dust was still in the air," he said. "The site itself was something I had never seen before."
He was with the National Guard, though he also served as a volunteer firefighter in New York, too, pulling dead and live bodies for 48 days. After those nearly seven weeks, he was transferred to work airport security detail.
“Truthfully there is no comparison,” he said when considering 9/11 cleanup to overseas service. “Ground zero was just a total mess. ...Initially it was truly just craziness and madness—everybody on autopilot doing what they thought was best.”
His best memory during that season? Though the city seemed to be falling apart, the people were coming together.
“We truly saw that city come together as one,” Howard said. “The open arms and extended hands were plentiful.”
Overseas, Howard said his time was filled with mixed emotions since he and his men were both hated and loved for their presence there.
“We had people that loved to see us and people that loved to hate us,” he said. “You went into a country where you had a dictator in power, and we were there to take him out of power. Under the reign you had the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’...‘have-nots’ were dirt farmers out in the field using archaic tools and irrigation systems to try to farm to be able to supply food for their families; ‘Haves’ were not as welcoming because they knew once we took them out of out power they could very well be one of the ‘have-nots.’”
‘Give something back’
Recounting his military career, Howard highly recommends the service and suggests everyone should experience it for a period of time.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “Military service to our country should be mandatory. We send kids off to college at 18...and most of them have no idea what they want to do when they grow up.”
Howard said for those on the fence about their future, the military could teach them a trade and maturity, while they pay homage to their country and the freedoms others fought to give them.
“It’s good the amount of opportunities this country affords everybody. The least they can do is give something back. I’m the first one to say that the military is not for everybody, but every job that every kid out here wants to do...those jobs are available in the military,” Howard said.
For him, the military has showed him the importance of brotherhood; and his closest friends today are still his fellow vets from years serving together.
And that brotherhood continues for Howard with his membership with his local VFW Post 3433 in Ladson. He currently serves as post commander—a one-year leadership position.
“The VFW gives back in a lot of different ways to the veterans of the community, as well as their families and other programs in the area, that assists the veterans,” he said.
Howard also promoted the organization as one different than in past decades, with its role as a strong voice in lobbying Congress for veteran benefits.
“It’s not your grandfather’s club anymore,” he said. “It used to be an old man’s club. It’s a place that the younger vets need to know they can go to.”
Howard said he plans to continue his patriotic service and community service—volunteering with Dorchester County Fire and Rescue—until mandatory retirement.
Howard also boasts a number of service awards including the World Trade Center ribbon and ones for humanitarian service and national defense. Each of them evokes a certain emotion and memory for Howard.
“I can honestly look at that ribbon rack and there’s not one that means any more than any others,” he said. “Each one of them has a significance.”