By Staff Sgt. Robert Cloys
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Job experience was the motive behind then Airman 1st Class Luke Howell’s decision to sign up for a six-month deployment in early 2011.
His wife, Amber, was 16 weeks pregnant at the time with their second child, and although the thought of leaving her and his first born behind for so long was difficult, Howell was still excited about the deployment.
Little did he know what would come in the days before he would head to Iraq.
Two days before leaving for training, Howell and his wife scheduled an ultrasound so that he could get some photos to bring with him while he was gone. Having experienced a miscarriage in the past, the couple was optimistic about their visit since the pregnancy had passed a critical time frame where many miscarriages occur.
“We sat there holding each other’s hands feeling blessed,” said Howell, now a Senior Airman.
After the doctor came in and started the ultrasound, the mood in the room suddenly shifted.
“We saw our baby and our baby wasn’t moving. We were confused,” he said. “We thought we had passed the ‘point of no return.’ It was painful to the very depths of our soul.”
Struggling to cope with the loss and preparing for a deployment soon became too much.
“The next day, I failed my physical training test, lost my chance for senior airman below the zone promotion and then left the next day for training,” said Howell. “At that point in time I didn’t care about my deployment. I no longer wanted to go. I attempted to stay and comfort my wife and try to heal from this devastating loss.”
However, the deployment continued forward and Luke left for training. His wife came to visit one last time before he headed to Iraq although neither had completely healed from their loss.
Howell’s deployment to Iraq was fast paced, perfect for him to forget about some of the pain he had left behind at home.
“When I got to Iraq, I threw myself into the mission. I submerged myself to avoid thoughts about what we had just experienced,” said Howell.
Shortly after arriving at his deployment he found out that his wife had become pregnant for the third time after visiting him in Virginia. This time Howell became numb to the news.
“I had just assumed my whole deployment that this pregnancy would go awry just like the others,” he said. “I felt it was my fault and just chose not to get attached. This left me bitter and cold.”
But the third time was the charm. Shortly after returning home Amber gave birth to their daughter, Kirra.
Even though things seemed to be looking up, Howell was still having trouble adjusting to being back home and still hadn’t completely healed from the experiences before and during his deployment.
“Even though Luke was physically here at home,” said Amber. “He was mentally still in Iraq.”
“I was having a rather difficult time adjusting to the pre-deployment life or the family life. I was used to always going on missions, so I was constantly on the go and spent little time at home,” he said. “I truly neglected my family.”
That neglect eventually led to the two separating for some time and Howell starting down a path of self-destruction.
Difficulties transitioning back to normal life are relatively common according to the Chaplain (Capt.) Amber Kiesel.
“Many military members return from deployments and are able to successfully adjust back to their lives, but most experience some difficulty readjusting or transitioning back, reestablishing their ‘new normal’, with their families, jobs and communities after a long separation. Fortunately, there are many agencies back home ready to support those coming home,” she said. “Chaplains, Military Family Life Consultant, mental health, Military OneSource are all helping agencies standing by for those that need help with personal or family issues.”
Eventually, Howell decided it was time for a major life change.
“Enough was enough. When I looked at my personal life and saw nothing fulfilling. I was empty. I cared about nothing and aspired to be nothing,” he said. I knew it was time for a change when I was ashamed to look at myself or let anyone see what I had become.”
Howell turned to his chain of command and chaplain for assistance, then called his wife and had her come home.
His spark of wanting to be something more soon grew to a flame as he felt his life starting to improve.
“I learned that I liked volunteering to help others,” Howell said. “I felt accomplished when I gave back and saw the impact a simple Airmen like myself could have.”
In addition to volunteer work, Howell turned to the MFLC on base for help with his home life.
“I found that the MFLC was an asset to my family. After my reunification with my wife, I was able to go to them for help with my issues. They helped me analyze my problems and see them in a different light.”
Now, a little more than a year after his deployment, Howell has stepped up to become president of the Airman’s Council and Airman Against Drunk Driving volunteer program, an initiative that he built from the ground up to provide Front Range military members a safe ride home when their plan falls through.
His efforts haven’t gone without notice. Recently the Schriever Top 3 recognized Howell as a performer of the month.
“We’ve seen incredible things from Airman Howell during the past several months,” said Senior Master Sgt. Brian Ginter, president of the Schriever Top 3. “His involvement with our wing’s Deployed Family Dinners and managing volunteers for Denver Bronco games has significantly impacted all Airmen on Schriever AFB in one way or another. Senior Airman Howell epitomizes our Air Force Core Values; integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.”
Howell doesn’t tell his story to gain sympathy, but to encourage others.
“In any situation, look to the future,” he said. “To get past trials have hope, patience and drive. I wish I learned what I know now a little earlier in life. It is never too late to change or to be someone better than you were before.”