I got a window seat in the back of the plane with the aisle seat vacant. Taxiing out to a MacArthur Airport runway, I looked at notes I’d made speaking with nine Shelter Island vets in the waiting area on their way to Washington D.C.
It was a Saturday in October 2012, and I’d just taken the reins as editor of the Reporter. For my first story in the paper, I’d accepted an invitation for a tour organized by Honor Flight Long Island, the local chapter of a national nonprofit dedicated to bringing veterans to memorials in the capital. That autumn day there were — including Shelter Island’s — eight Honor Flights to Washington from around the country.
We took off and after the seat belt sign was off, Howard Jackson sat down next to me and introduced himself. “I heard someone tell you what a rough time you’re going to have with this new job,” Howard said. He was talking about the friendly breaking of chops some vets had given me in the waiting room, things on the order of: “How crazy are you to take this job?” and “There’s got to be some honest work out there for you.”
“Don’t listen to them,” Howard said. “They can only rag each other so much, so someone new is fair game.”
I told him that I got it, and it didn’t really bother me, but I appreciated him sitting down and talking.
Every time I met him afterward, he was the same. Open, interested in me and what I was doing, and funny, sometimes in that salty way typical of his generation, or softer, in a wry, amused take on the way the world was going.
On the Island, some deaths go through the community at a deeper level than others, and the news of Howard’s passing two weeks ago at age 94 was one of them. A veteran of World War II, he was a member of the 15th U.S. Army Air Force, seeing action almost every time he and his mates took to the skies. He was one of the more than seven million members of the Armed Forces serving overseas between December 1942 and May 1945. More than 405,000 of them never came home.
I spent a long afternoon with Howard at his and Pam’s home in Silver Beach one windy, wild spring day, filled with lively conversation. Like many combat vets, Howard had a difficult time speaking about his service when he came home, he told me. He had racked up 40 missions as a bombardier and on intelligence flights. He received a Purple Heart for wounds to his right hand — permanently fixed in a grip — and his right leg, from taking shrapnel during an operation over Regensburg, Germany.
Hundreds of German anti-aircraft batteries were firing nonstop throughout that mission and “every single one of them was trying to kill me, personally,” he said with a smile, describing the experience of flying through a blizzard of exploding flak. It left him shaken for the rest of his life.
“I can’t go to fireworks shows,” he told me.
Nightmares, however, which frightened him for 30 years after the war, were long gone, as well as night sweats and waking up trembling. Five times he went to hospitals after coming awake in fragile shape, but each time he was dismissed because his symptoms had disappeared.
“We didn’t have a name for it then,” he said. “There was no such thing as PTSD. It was deemed cowardice. You weren’t allowed to be afraid, which is nonsense.”
I think of Howard and his comrades-in-arms, who had to bear the trauma of combat memories mostly alone. We’re fortunate for the work of volunteers and contributors that help young men and women repair damage they’ve suffered, with organizations such as the Island’s Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund, which gives vets and their families resources to work through any problems they may have.
Howard described getting the news that the war was over in May 1945, when he was 20, living in a large tent set in olive groves next to a small airfield outside a town in Italy. When the word came, no one celebrated, he said. “There was relief, but there was a feeling of sadness.”
Pam Jackson gave the 2018 Memorial Day address outside the Legion Hall. She spoke of service, and the duty to remember those who died in uniform in all of America’s wars. But she also asked those in attendance to remember those “who came home broken. Their fight continues every day, every year, every decade … They need our support and love.”
I’ll never forget Howard, from the time he sat down to talk on a flight to Washington, introducing himself and welcoming me to a new place, and for sharing part of a life that was lived with honesty and courage.