Sunday, October 01, 2006

Remembering Merideth Howard, The Oldest American Servicewoman Killed In Combat

Photo of Merideth Howard courtesy of Seattle Times

Merideth Howard, died a heroine.

She was the oldest servicewoman killed in the annals of American Combat.

52 years old.

Old enough to be your grandmother.

A gray-haired woman in a helmet...

She was all of 5-4.

She had to stand on a box to see over the turret to man the .50 caliber machine gun on the Humvee she rode shotgun on in Afghanistan.

Sgt. 1st Class Merideth Howard died in Kabul, Afghanistan on September 8 of this year, when a Suicide Jihadist drove a Toyota Corolla into her Humvee, and detonated his bomb, killing her friend Staff Sgt. Robert Paul, who was driving and Meredith, manning the machine gun in the back.

And 14 Afghanis.

It was tremendous explosion.

Left a crater, six foot wide in the road of the infamous Jalalabad Road, Kabul's suicide-bomb alley.

It took a big bomb to diminish the likes of a dynamic woman such as Sgt. 1st Class Merideth Howard.

And dynamic, Howard was, the native of Corpus Christi, Texas strove far in life and accomplished much. While at Texas A& M University, she was a member of the first women's tennis team there, and became the second woman to graduate from the University's Brayton Fire School.

She went on to become the first woman to join the Bryan, Texas Fire Department, working at Fire Station 1 as an engine driver for about 3 1/2 years. While there, she gained the respect of her collegues, no easy task, being the lone woman in an all male department, but she was more than up to the challenge. Innovative, she developed a way to recharge the department's respiration tanks on site. Compassionate, Howard helped start a car wash to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association and "Jerry's kids." A go-getter, Merideth moved on and became a fire-risk-management specialist with insurance companies, eventually helping set up a consulting company in California.

She decided to join the military in 1988 at the age of 34, as a medical equipment repairer for the Army Reserve. David White, Howard's instructor at the Brayton Fire School tells us why, "She joined the Army because she thought it was something she should do..." In 1996, because her medical unit was disbanded, she was assigned to the Individual Ready Reserves, for soldiers without a unit.

It was as a member of the IRR, that Merideth was called up for active duty in Afghanistan in the spring of this year. Before she left, Howard, cognizant of the dangerous nature of her assignment, married her long time partner Hugh Hvolboll, wanting to make their relationship official. Hugh explains why, "As a boyfriend, I would have no status with the Army...As a husband, I did."

Arriving in Afghanistan, Sgt. 1st Class Howard was part of a provincial-reconstruction team, assigned to a Civil Affairs unit at the the Mehtarlam base in eastern Laghman province. As one of 24 provincial-reconstruction teams in Afghanistan, their task was to help rebuild roads and schools and other infrastructure needed in the war torn and depleted country.

At first, Howard handled paperwork at the Mehtarlam base, tracking projects and applying for money. She was an industrious soldier, often going to the "Home Depot" area of the base, where the wood was stored and engaging in some basic carpentry with her hammer, which is still sitting in her room on base. She built a side table, a rudimentary armoire, and eventually the box, which she used to stand on, to man her machine-gun on the Humvee.

Merideth was good at her job, but disliked being confined within the parameters of the base. She wanted more, she wanted to be let out, to interact with the Afghani people, to go out on missions.She wanted to be a gunner.

It is not part of official Pentagon policy for women to serve in Combat units, but Sergeant Howard got her wish and found herself in Combat missions, because her Civil Affairs team was short-handed. One soldier went home after a noncombat injury, another was sent to Nuristan and the gunner to Jalalabad. The way was open for Merideth's wish to be granted.

And Sergeant Howard seemed to have embraced her new role with her customary gusto. She told her husband that one day she realized she enjoyed it. In August, she said she was thinking of extending her tour. Hugh provides us with an insight into his wife's enthusiastic acceptance of her new endeavors, despite the danger, "Merideth liked to live life as an adventure..."

And an adventure it was.

Riding shotgun on the Humvee, as her friend Staff Sgt. Robert Paul drove the vehicle. Merideth, standing on her box, the trigger of the .50 caliber machine gun clutched in her hands, alert, adrenaline flowing, a grayed hair woman in a helmet,in a land of Burkha-clad women, constantly scanning the countryside for signs of trouble.

And trouble did arive that day of September 8, when a Suicide Jihadist took Merideth and others lives.

But he did not take from us Merideth's memory.

We honor her, she died a Heroine.

Rebekah Bridges-Tervydis shares her thoughts with us about Merideth

MG: Hi Rebekah, how did you come to know Merideth?

Rebekah Merideth had just moved from Texas to relocate to the SF Bay area, while looking for a home to purchase she moved into what we affeciately came to call 'the home'. It was a clean, respectable, residence club for Women, near the heart of downtown San Francisco.

Many of the women were in transition, like Merideth relocating, I had just finished College and was moving from another state, to live in the 'big city'.

I met M., as I came to call her, passing in the hallways, perhaps at dinner or breakfast, even possibley the huge Women's restroom located on each floor. One thing, anyone will tell you, was Merideth has/had a one of kind, incredible laugh. (In fact, that's the one comment I continue to hear from folks "you mean, I'm never going to hear her laugh again?"

Anyway, it was the first week of July and our little Miss Firecracker was about to celebrate her birthday in the big city, I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate. It was there, that Meredith and I realised, we had a very similiar somewhat ribauld, irreverant senses of humor despite our nearly 10 year age difference.

When I heard of Merideth passing, after wailing some two or more hours, crying more tears than I thought my body could produce, what struck me was two things " Not only had a I lost the woman that I had grown up with, who without any doubt in my mind was as much my blood family as could be conceived. But, I had in facted lost one of three persons in the world, who actually could appreciate our wacky senses of humor, our take on life". My sorrow was completely selfish, I couldn't comprehend how the most intelligent woman I had the priviledge of knowing, the kind of woman that I wish I could have been, could have been taken so senselessly. What a waste, what a horribly, pitiful waste our Country had just suffered.

MG: It seems that Merideth was a very upbeat person, someone who was not afraid to take on another challenge. Is that how you found her?

Rebekah: Upbeat... that's just one word you could use. Merideth was never a 'label' but she absolutely knew she could play with the big toys and on the big boys playground. I think Hugh (Merideth's husband) said it recently in an interview "life was an adventure to Merideth." She was never in competition with anyone else except herself. She didn't need to be the best, she just needed to be the best that she could be. And she never expected you to be anything more than what you were, however we became close enough in our lives, that she would not sit by and watch me allow myself to shrivel, wallow in self pity. Even her emails from her deployment... nope, I wasn't going to get away with that behaviour even if she was half a world away.

I used to call her my 'touchstone' because I had a tendency to fly about life, alighting from one fun thing to the next, but if I started to feel weary or out of touch I'd go back home to M. and with one of her wondeful hugs she'd say exactly what my Mother (had she been alive) or my big sister would have said "Snap out of it, be responsible and be yourself."

Her wit and intelligence always made me take a double time step to catch up with her thought process, after about two years of this, I finally gave in and realised to follow her lead in most instances. There were areas's that she simply relied on me to take the lead, but I'm not sure if that wasn't just generousity on her part.

MG: Did you have a chance to see her before she left for Afghanistan?

Rebekah: Yes, M. made a special trip back to Alameda, to finish up some business. By then my husband and I had relocated two hours North, near Sacramento. Meredith called and said she'd be there by dinner. We had one night of laughter, fun, luckily the same as we always had. (It's difficult for me to realise that was the last time I saw her. She traveled so much for her job, that my mind continues to tell me she's in Hartford doing some inspection.) That evening we just laughed at some of the silly things we had done, said, seen or witnessed. I won't forget that last hug she gave me. Some tears on my part, M. wasn't prone to tears...unless the room was dark and we were watching some sappy show on tv. Hugh was very good at knowing exactly when she needed a hanky!

MG: Did she express any unhappiness or misgivings about going to Afghanistan?

Rebekah: Never unhappiness, despite my rantings and ravings about how our Government would send a 51 year old, highly educated with a Master Degree, reservist to the front! Notice, I did not say WOMAN. To Meredith we were all the same Man or Woman, it was our resposiblity to be the best we could be and explore those areas where we excelled.

As for misgivings.... I have two things to say to this. There have been reports by someone in M. s family (someone, I don't recall in over twenty years, ever having heard of) that she felt she was unprepared and that she hadn't been trained well enough by the military to go there. Knowing M. what she meant was, she hadn't been able to absorb the training entirely that was offered. She took it upon herself to finish the training as she felt would best serve her unit and her unwaivering desire to be her best.

Once over there, I think the reality of the situation certainly woke her up. This was no longer just an adventure, this was an opportunity to do what she had been trained to do and on some very serious missions. Merideth was always bright, cheery, positive but could be deadly serious when it was required. It became required.

MG: Did you have a chance to communicate with her when she was in Afghanistan?

Rebekah: Oh yes! Thanks to the Good Lord for the internet. Mail would take three weeks to get there, but the written word is so lovely by hand, that letters and packages did get exchanged. But we emailed quite often. I almost feel jealous now seeing how many folks/friends she was chatting with while there.

I'm somewhat ashamed to say it, but in the depths of my waxing and waning depression with the loss of M., I still write her email address. I do this just when I know my head will explode if I really, really have to realise she's not coming back.

MG: Did she like the country and the people?

Rebekah: Oh very very much. A few weeks before she died, Meredith sent us photos' of the land. Where there was water, the land was wonderfully green. Where water was not present the backdrop could have been the moon for all I would have known.

As for the people, M truly truly enjoyed the children and the elders she met. There were never specifics about different folks, but the regard and hospitality of the people were truly extraordinary to her. She relayed a time when her CO (I think that's the rank, I'm afraid I'm an event planner by trade... military grade is completely lost on me) was made to sit outside a typical Afghan home, while she and another woman were admitted inside to have tea and melon for an hour or two. I know M. must have enjoyed that tremendously, having a chance to get to talk with the women and be in a typical home. Again, it was an adventure.

MG: Is there anything you would like to say to Merideth's fellow servicemen and women, the brave soldiers that served with her?

Rebekah: You know Mister Ghost, please read this entry entirely before feeling I've sullied the choice of being a solidier. Because that is not my aim at all.

I'm ashamed to say I maybe the typical, stupid American, that just doesn't truly understand the process of war....we tear down, just to rebuild to our specifications? Is that it? Why is our country on another country's land, I don't get it. I don't have any misgiving's except my own ignorance of the situation. I can't truly judge until I truly understand all sides. How does it relate to 9/11/2001? How does this act ensure we are any safer, by putting our own people in harms way?

And I simply don't know who to trust for the honest word about why, is it the media I should trust? Our current Government seems to be so out of touch with reality at times, that it appears they don't have to hold themselves accountable, I mean the Suits in Wash. D.C., not the fatiques in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It wasn't until Merideth went there and began relaying that her job was to help obtain native folks to rebuild their comuunities. To help give care packages out to the children and families in desperate need. That, it no longer mattered what our Country was doing there in Afghan, I was honored and proud to be an American, to support our troops, knowing they were the good guys trying to help. I'm very proud that her service and that of Sgt. Paul and the others that serve there and in Iraq, I'm so grateful that your presense has made me the Proud American, instead of just the befuddled American!

MG: Can you share with us a favorite memory of Merideth?

Rebekah:I honestly wish I could, but there are too many. When you spend your life with someone, groving up (my parents died while I was quite young and I had little family to rely on) with someone like Meredith as your role model, your confident, your best friend, I cannot fathom choosing one memory to share. I'm afraid my journal is going to have to keep all those funny, stoic, honorable times private because Merideth was bigger than life to me. One memory just won't do.

MG: Thanks very much Rebekah. How best should we remember Merideth?

Rebekah: AH.... I hope the world will remember her for so much more than just being the oldest female soldier to die in the two wars. Her age, her sex, never held her back and I would hope that what people hear about her life is that it was a life well lived, service to the poor both in heart, spirit and poverty. Honor her memory by always trying to be your best in whatever capacity that is.

Merideth Howard was Rebekah Bridges-Tervydis best friend and served as Maid of Honor at her wedding in 2004. We kindly thank Rebekah for sharing her thoughts about Merideth, despite the difficult circumstances.

Roses from Robert by Missyasmina - Flickr

Merideth Howard In Her Own Words

To her boyfriend -- and future husband -- Hugh Hvolboll who manufactured fireworks.

"You set them off, and I'll decide how much damage they cause..."

On Her Connection with the Afghan People

"We have a good relationship with the people here in the village and, of course, as everybody in Afghanistan they are in need."

On Rebuilding Afghanistan's roads, schools, and water system

"The very basic things that we in America take for granted all of the time."

Improving the Lives of Afghan's Children

"We wanted to do a humanitarian drop here so we can help the kids out. We're giving them some backpacks for school. Most of the kids are in school, even if it's just a few hours a day."

On The Afghani People and Afghanistan's Future

"The people of Afghanistan are very warm and friendly people. And there are millions of children here, and I think this is the key to the future of Afghanistan."

On why she was in Afghanistan (as told to Command Sgt. Major Daniel Wood, U.S. Army)

"...she was here for the people of this land, and she realized that the only way this long war could be won is by interacting and engaging with the children of Afghanistan, as well as with the young adults and the women."

Those Who Knew Her Speak Out

Words cannot express how sad we are about Merideth's passing. My Wife, Lori and I were blessed and honored to know and love Merideth. She was 'one of a kind'. We got to know her through work, but we soon became friends. She loved to play tennis and her love of life and travel were second to none. She had the most infectious laugh...She would start laughing and then we would laugh, and then she would laugh, and so on.

The last and most heart-breaking correspondence we had with her was we discovered she and Hugh got married, just before her deployment to Afghanistan. I asked her when, oh when were we going to have a reception for their wedding! She said just as soon as she got back home to the U.S.A.

We will all miss her. God bless her.
Jeff Arita

Merideth had a wicked sense of humor. Every time I saw her she had a smile on her face. May all couples have the joy her and Hugh had together. Even though she will be missed she will always be in our memories.
AM Ledbetter

The world was a better place for having Merideth in it. I know I am a better person for having her for a friend for a quarter of a century. I will miss her. And am oh so glad we went paragliding. Keep them in line in heaven Merideth.
Amy Downing

Meredith lived, "…What we do for others is our legacy, and lives on forever…." Having worked with Meredith for a dozen years, I have nothing but grateful and happy remembrances of her as a person, her chosen profession, her dedication to our Country, and extend my sympathy to her family for your loss. As I write this brief note, I will never forget her identifiable laugh, which will last in my memory forever. Sincerely,
Brach Schmidt

"She was just one of those people who inspires you."

David White, Howard's instructor at at the Brayton Fire School.

I met Merideth at Fort Bragg, we were in training together for several months for this deployment. Our ranks are close and we both worked for a Fire Dept so we had a few things to talk about. She was instantly likeable by anyone she met. She was always smiling. I will miss her very much.
Robert McLaughlin

I'm currently deployed in the unit that SFC. Howard was a part of when she passed away. This in undoubtedly the worst tragedy to have befallen this unit. SFC. Howard was, without question, the kindest and most sincerest of people I have ever met. She treated us all with respect, regardless of rank, and on many occasions, she seemed like a mother making sure I had everything I needed to do my job (comfortably). I can think of no one else that did not deserve this less than she did.
PFC Stephen Mondaca

I had the honor to serve as SFC Howard's Commander at Mehtar Lam for two months and work with her for an additonal month before I departed Laghman Province for Nuristan Province where I still continue to serve.

She came onto my Forward Operating Base with the new group of Provincial Reconstruction Team personnel at the end of April and I was to change command with her Commander. He broke his wrist and I remained in command for an additional two months working closely with SFC Howard and the rest of the new Team.

To say she was a phenomenal soldier is an understatement. She was responsible for managing the Commander's Emergency Response Fund (CERP) in addition to her Civil Affairs job. She replaced a high speed Civil Affairs NCO who had developed an excellent approach to how we managed CERP at the PRT. SFC Howard came in and made the best CERP Program in Afghanistan even better. She was organized and detailed. She made our program one to envy but more importantly one that delivered millions of dollars in development to Laghman and Nuristan Provinces. She was one of a kind and an absolute pleasure to work with.

I am a career Infantry Officer with over 20 years of continuous service on active duty in defense of our nation. The hardest day I've ever had was the day she and SSG Paul died in Kabul. It was a black day for me. I have been in Afghanistan now for over 21 months continously and I have never felt so frustrated or angry than on that day. I am genuinely optimistic about Afghanistan's future but her death took even my optimism away. I recovered after thinking back on the many talks she and I had about what CERP, the PRT, and the Coalition presence was doing for Afghanistan. I mentally dedicated my last few months in this country to her memory.

I will leave Afghansitan, lord willing, in November. My last act will be to celebrate Thanksgiving with my Team in Eastern Nursitan. I will give thanks for how the lord has blessed me and my various team mates since my arrival in Afghanistan in January 2005. I will give thanks for SFC Merideth Howard. I am a better person for having served with her. She made a difference in the lives of many people and for that she will always be remembered.

LTC Anthony Feagin Infantry - Past Commander Mehtar Lam PRT and current Commander Nuristan PRT

We thank you Merideth for your duty and sacrifice.


The Seattle Times: Nation & World: At 52, soldier was distinctive in how she lived, and died

CNN Transcripts

North Shore Journal


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