There were four 2002 graduates, actually, who went in together. The others were John Etterling, Alex Watts and Josh Huddleston.
They spent nearly three years in training, including several months in Israel with the Israeli Special Forces.
“They are very good, and we came away from that with an understanding of the enemy we would be facing,” he said.
Etterling was among the first to be deployed to Iraq. Sadly, he was killed in January 2005, while Howard was still in training in California. He and Watts and Huddleston all spoke at his funeral service in Wheelersburg.
Howard arrived in Iraq the last week of February and on April 5 tasted his first combat. His L Company, of the 3rd Battalion, crossed a bridge over a stream on a raid on a house on the other side, said to be harboring insurgents.
“We went in at night, blew the door, searched the house, but found nothing,” Howard said.
At 2:30 a.m. a call for Muslim prayer sounded.
“We knew there was no prayer at that hour. It was a signal. We were caught in an ambush. They were holed up in houses all along that side of the river.”
Enemy fire – from rifles and rocket propelled grenades – opened up as they were crossing the bridge and making their way back up the hill on the other side.
“An RPG landed right near me and exploded. I took 13 pieces of shrapnel in my left leg and another piece in my left cheek,” Howard said.
He passed out momentarily and when he came to he was still in the open and undergoing enemy fire form light machine guns and AK-47s.
“I got up and ran and managed to leap behind a rock pile, which I thanked the Good Lord for providing because it took me out of the line of fire.”
One of his fellow Marines jumped behind the same rock pile. He noticed blood spurting from Howard’s leg and yelled for a corpsman.
“Our corpsman, Doc Swanson, was 100 yards down he road, fighting in the firefight. He ran across open ground to come to me," Howard said. "Bullets were impacting the ground around his feet. He patched me up and then carried me out of there. I stand about 6-feet-1 and weigh about 180. He was running with me. I wanted to tell him I could walk but I couldn’t talk because my jaw was swollen so much from the piece of shrapnel that hit me there.”
As they were running, Howard was hit in the leg by a rifle bullet.
“I’m having trouble breathing. Doc opens my flack jacket. He got in front of me, setting himself up to get shot instead of me. He is a hero in the truest sense of the word. He put a tourniquet on my leg and saved my life.”
Howard passed out again and when he came to he was in a medical center at a small airfield outside Alsad, Iraq.
“I had surgery there,” he said, “and the surgeon who operated on my leg said the bullet that went into my leg should have cut an artery, but somehow it fell apart before it reached my arteries.
“He said he did not understand why or how that came to be. But I knew. It was because of the same Person who had led me to that rock pile, and who had protected Doc as he made his way to me.”
A couple of months later he was given the option to rejoin his unit or go back to the States. He went back to his old outfit, which had had 12 Marines killed in action while he was away. Ten of them died when the tracked vehicle they were riding in was destroyed by a roadside bomb.
Howard was cleared for combat duty in June.
“As soon as I got back we went out on another mission, and it was the worst of all, because we lost Sgt. David Wimberg, my squad leader from Louisville, Ky.,” he said. “He was killed in firefight on May 25, just 26 or 27 years old. He was really the reason I’m still alive, the reason some of the rest of us are still alive.”
Wimberg moved out in front of his men and broke up an ambush all by himself. He kicked in the front door of the house where the insurgents were hiding and was greeted by three enemy soldiers. He killed two of them before the third shot him. He was still directing his men on the assault of the house as he went down.
"Anything you think of a Marine being, he was it," Howard said. "He was by far the greatest man I had the privilege of knowing. He left a father and a mother, a sister and a brother.
Posthumously, Wimberg was awarded the Silver Star, given for gallantry in action.
"His story won't make the history books about the Iraqi war. Everyday there were heroes, but their actions were never reported in the stories of the war in the papers and on television news," Howard said.
Howard told of one episode where he was attacked by a bull that butted him, tossed him into the air, then tried to stomp him into the ground — but actually wound up saving his life.
"We were in a firefight during the last of July in a little town called Cycla," he said. "We were assaulting a house where we knew four insurgents were holed up. In the front yard was this bull and a cow. One of our tanks came up and blew the house all to pieces. The concussion nearly killed both animals. They were furious. We shot the cow. The bull ran off.
"We found three enemy in the house but not the fourth guy. He had escaped to a smaller house out back. When we got to the rear of the first house and moved in to clear that little house, my friend Lyons was shot and fell. Payne tried to reach him but there was too much fire coming out of the little house.
"I take off toward that house. I'm running. Suddenly the bull came running around the corner and hit me dead center with his head. Then he started jumping on top of me. The guy in the building starts shooting at us. I'm rolling on the ground trying to get away from the bull and at the same time dodging bullets. Then a grenade went off in the entryway to that building where the insurgent was holed up. If not for that little diversion by the bull, me and the guy behind me would have hit that doorway just as the grenade went off. So the bull actually saved me and the guy behind me from being killed.
"The bull continued snorting and bucking and one of our guys finally had to put a bullet in his brain. We got to Lyons, but he was dead."
Howard said he would have liked to have seen more media reports of the schools they were rebuilding and of their many efforts to see children get an education.
"Their parents told us how much they appreciated seeing their little ones going to school for the first time," he said. "I'll never forget going into one city and a little boy 7 or 8 years old came up to me and showed me his book bag filled with school books, books bought by donated American money. He was so excited that he had books and was going to school. Stories like his never made the news."
The politics revolving around the Iraqi war "were above my paygrade," Pfc. Howard said. But he said he believes America is right in fighting the terrorists there rather that waiting to fight them on our own soil.
"I saw little kids running for their lives. I hope I never have to see that in America," he said. "This enemy we were fighting will kill women and children and think nothing about it. We took all precautions to protect civilians and try to get them out of harm's way when there was a firefight coming."
Out of his company of 140 to 150 members, "we lost 48 guys and had twice that many wounded," he said. "We all, to a man, said that we would do it again if it was necessary, that it was worth it."
Several Marines in Howard's company became Christians through the ministry of the chaplains and some assistance by Howard. In a land where an American soldier captured with a New Testament on his person was subject to be beheaded, baptismal services were set up to be handled quickly and discretely in the reeds and bulrushes along the Euphrates River.
Howard's year of deployment was up Nov. 5, 2005, and he came home. His knee was damaged worse than he had guessed it to be and it took away any possibility of his ever returning.
He was discharged from the military in 2008, at about the same time he graduated from Cedarville University with a degree in pastoral studies. He has been the youth minister at Bloom Freewill Baptist Church near South Webster for nearly two years now. He and Amanda Wurts were married Jan. 9.
"All my life I had gone to Cornerstone Nazarene. The job at Bloom was open and the people wanted me," he said. "I have a burden for the youth. I want to share the Gospel with them and tell them about Christ. I don't think they fully realize what He can do.
"I don't think they know that He can stop bullets."
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.