The Sad Tale of Howard the Soldier

By Jay Kirell

There was a guy I served with in Afghanistan with named Howard.  Howard joined up with us about half-way through the deployment.  He was a new private just out of basic.

Those last two sentences should tell you all you need to know about how Howard was treated during the six months he spent with us at our remote outpost.

Well, it should tell you, if you had any idea what a year-long deployment in Afghanistan is like.

When I first arrived, it was early June of 2010.  I had just graduated basic training and it took about three weeks to get all the paperwork and gear ready to send me over to meet up with my platoon – who had deployed just two days after I first arrived at Fort Campbell.  By the time I met up with them and got introduced, they had already spent the last three weeks going on patrols, doing outpost maintenance (filling sandbags, setting up the defensive positions), and getting into firefights.  It didn’t the platoon long to bond over those crazy first few weeks, when everything was new and they were learning and adjusting to everything on the fly.

The fact that I was less than a month behind them when I arrived didn’t matter.  The platoon itself had bonded, both in the weeks of combat before I arrived – and in the months before when they were preparing for the deployment at Fort Polk, LA during JRTC (pre-war training).  It took months for me to get accepted into the platoon.  Months of firefights and patrols and tower guard and generally sucking as much as everyone else around me.

Which brings me back to Howard.

Howard, as I stated earlier, was the new guy.  But not just a new guy – he was an E-1, which meant he was the lowest of the lowest.  A private who didn’t even have private rank (the “mosquito wings” as they’re called).  He got to go through all the same “new guy” stuff that all privates go through when they first get to their platoon.  Unfortunately for him, he joined the platoon in November, right after the so-called “fighting season” [May to October] in Afghanistan ended.

Which meant Howard spent the month of November, as well as December, January, February, March and April, with a bunch of infantrymen who had all seen, done, and put up with – the worst shit Afghanistan could throw at them over the summer. Small arms fire, grenades, RPGs, IED’s, Recoilless Rifles – this platoon saw it all.  And now that the temperature was dropping and snow started to appear on the mountains, the Taliban slinked away and the soldiers I was with had nothing to do but look for entertainment.

And Howard was the opening and closing act.

The poor guy.  He was a 18-year-old kid, straight out of Montana, of all places.  The first guy I’d ever met from that state. This deployment was the first time he left the country, with his plane ride down to Georgia for basic training being the first time he left Montana.

He looked like an overgrown baby doll.  Big round face, burly round chest, giant forearms.  You could tell he spent a lot of time lifting and tossing heavy things.  He wasn’t a bright guy.  God didn’t give him a lot of brains, or at least a lot of book smarts.  He was very trusting and kind of, I guess, what most people would call a rube.  He chewed tobacco like Lenny Dykstra and would swallow the juice on purpose.  I asked him once why he did it.  “I like the taste,” was all he said.

When Howard arrived he had really unfortunately timing.  Four soldiers in our platoon had just gotten busted for smoking hash the week before.  A mandatory outpost drug test was about to be initiated and everyone was on edge.  The leadership was going crazy.  Four of their best soldiers were about to be removed.  Brigade was screaming at Battalion.  Battalion was screaming at company headquarters.  Company headquarters ended up screaming at platoon leadership.  Platoon leadership ended up screaming at the junior leadership.

And junior leadership – who share all the pay and workload of the regular Joe at the bottom of the food chain – but have added responsibility of watching them and punishing them – were not in a good mood.  With four soldiers gone, that meant extra patrols and extra tower guard shifts, with the platoon already tasked with going on two patrols a day and manning three towers.

And that is what Howard walked into when we picked him up at the Forward Operating Base a few miles down the road from our outpost.

His first mistake was greeting the platoon with a hearty smile and a  “Howdy, I’m Howard, but everyone calls me ‘Big Country!'”

“Start fucking PUSHING!”  screamed one of the Specialists.

The smile on Howard’s face dropped almost as fast as he did.  I had to admit, his pushup form was flawless.  I remember thinking it seemed he had a lot of experience being dropped.

When we finally got him back to the outpost, the platoon ended up using Howard in much the same way the local Afghan population used donkeys.  Need something heavy moved?  Call Howard.  Need to get chow to the towers?  Howard’s got that.  Tired of being the RTO [radio operator]?  Train Howard to take your job so you don’t have to do it anymore.

It got to the point that Howard – being both the new guy and rather gullible – would have soldiers just completely mess up the tower guard roster – re-write his name over theirs – and he never complained.  He just went along with it – sometimes putting in 8-hour shifts when he was only supposed to do four.

And this was what was done to him when he wasn’t getting smoked.  “Smoked”, of course, being the term for corrective punishment.  Make an error – do some pushups, things like that.  A normal soldier will make a mistake – do some pushups, and learn not to do that mistake again.

Howard would keep making the same mistakes over and over again.  The corrective punishment leveled against him would go up in intensity as the mistakes kept coming. It would start with pushups and some running – and eventually lead to low-crawling through ice-cold mud in 15-degree weather; two-hour “patrols” around the outpost with 150-lbs of rocks in a rucksack; or iron-mike knee-benders with 120mm mortar cans on his shoulders.

Whatever happened to the happy-go-lucky, good ol’ boy from Montana that joined our platoon in November was nowhere to be found by the time we re-deployed in April.

Howard was nowhere to be found for the first formation we had the morning after we touched down in America.  He was passed-out drunk in his room.

He was late for the second formation the next day.  Drunk again.

By the third day he was ordered to sleep in my barracks room.  My actual bedroom didn’t have enough space for him to actually sleep in it, so I gave him a blanket and he slept in the hallway in front of the refrigerator.

This went on… for three weeks.

From the time we re-deployed until the time we went on leave, Howard slept in the hallway of my barracks room.  I’m not sure what he did all night out there, but I know he made it a point to ask me on more than a few occasions to go to the PX and buy him “three or four” 4-Locos.

I did.  Because, hell, we had all just survived war.  If the guy wanted to drink let him drink.  As long as I could drag his ass to formation in the morning it didn’t concern me.

I didn’t realize how much it concerned him though, because it became harder and harder to drag him to formation in the morning.  He seemed so unmotivated, even though all we did when we first got back was go to first formation then get released for the day.

I texted my platoon sergeant one day right before we went on leave and told him I thought Howard needed help.  My platoon sergeant said he would look into it.

He never did.

When we got back from leave the platoon experienced what generally happens after a re-deployment – change.  The leadership gets broken up, guys who had extended just for the tour immediately started going into the separation process.  All the leadership, both junior and senior shuffle off to bigger and better things and new people come in.

About six months after we got back, the platoon had new leadership and Howard actually seemed to be making some steady progress.  He had just been promoted and had been doing well on his physical fitness tests.  He seemed to have turned a corner in his career.  Since he had another five years left on his enlistment contract, he looked forward to heading back to Afghanistan and actually seeing combat.

But then, out of the blue, came the DUI.  The DUI which was then followed by an Article-15 [administrative punishment].  An Article 15 which stripped Howard of his rank, took away half his pay and restricted him to the Battalion area.

A Battalion area that included a gym, cafeteria…and PX.  The same PX where Howard would go and beg soldiers to buy him 4-Locos.  Which is why, even though he was being as severely punished as any soldier could have been – he would still show up for formation every morning smelling of alcohol.

It wasn’t until Howard fell stone cold drunk asleep during a morning briefing by the new platoon sergeant that the ax fell in its entirety.

That’s when Howard started sleeping at the company.

In a cage.

The cage where the platoon kept all its equipment locked up at night.

The platoon sergeant would stay until the end of business – usually around 18:00 – whereby he would hand the key to the equipment cage off to the CQ runner and instruct him to lock Private Howard up in the cage no later than 23:00 hours.  Up until then Howard was allowed to roam around the Battalion area as long as he checked in with the CQ desk every hour.

And that’s what happened.  For about two weeks.  Until the company First Sergeant found out about it, blew a fit and almost relieved the new platoon sergeant.

By then Howard had been through the drug and alcohol counseling program, and was preparing for his separation.  A month later, he was gone.  Given a general discharge, and a plane ticket back to Montana.  Howard is ineligible for the GI Bill.  He’s most likely ineligible for a VA home loan.  He would be eligible for disability benefits, but I don’t know if anyone in the Army made him aware of that before they pushed him out the door.

I’m not going to sit here and say I was Howard’s best friend in the platoon.  Or that I looked out for him and did all I could to make sure he fit in.  I wasn’t and I didn’t.  I was friendly to him, as I was with everyone, but I don’t believe the guy really had any friends.  He came into the war too late to really bond with anyone in the platoon, at least the way you can when you survive combat together.

But I was friends with the guy on Facebook, at least for a little while.  The day he separated he un-friended me and everyone else he served with.  I don’t blame him for that.  He got treated like shit and had every right to hate all of us.

I probably could have helped the kid more, but I had just gotten married and I was dealing with my own demons, as everyone in my platoon was.  I didn’t have the time, nor the ability, to help him.

And for that I’m sorry, Howard.

Wherever you are today, I hope you’re safe.  I hope you’re well.  I hope if you ever find a way to read this, you do so with that same big, Skoal-filled smile on your face I first saw in Afghanistan.

Happy Veterans Day, buddy.

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