Duty pushed Art Howard during his years in the Navy

MIDDLEBURY — Art Howard knew at an early age he was going to join the military. It was something that previous generations of his family had done, and he wasn’t going to be the exception to the rule.
Therefore at the age of 17 Howard coaxed his folks into green-lighting his entry into the U.S. Navy. He hadn’t even graduated from Dover (N.H.) High School yet. When he had secured his diploma at age 18, Howard shipped off to basic training with the thought he might further his experience and interest in communications.
“I was the first kid on my block to have a CB radio,” Howard, now 73, recalled with a smile.
But the Navy had different plans for its new recruit.
They made him part of the Underwater Demolition Team (UDT), a unit charged with finding and destroying enemy defensive obstacles near beaches prior to amphibious landings. The UDT was created during World War II and continued operating through the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Its functions were ultimately taken over by the Navy SEALs.
“I thought about trying out for the SEALs, but I never had enough ambition to go through that kind of punishment,” he said of the rigorous fitness training required to be a member of that elite force.
Howard, who spent most of his early years in Maine and New Hampshire, was first stationed in the early 1960s in Long Beach, Ca. From there, he and some of his UDT colleagues shipped out to Hawaii. But he didn’t get to enjoy many fruit drinks, gorgeous sunsets and sandy beaches: Howard and his shipmates were tasked with finding and defusing the many unexploded mines left floating in the Pacific following World War II.
The assignment involved sweeping large, open stretches of ocean using a metal detector. When they came upon one of the large, round mines, they’d carefully deactivate it — or safely detonate it.
Fortunately, the antiquated ordinance did not claim the lives of any members of Howard’s unit.
“You had to be really careful,” Howard said in perhaps the understatement of the year.
In 1964, Howard’s UDT unit was sent to Yokosuka, about 30 miles southwest of Japan’s capital city, Tokyo, and began performing the same search-and-defuse exercise off the coast of Japan.
The UDT found the Japanese waters to be a much more fertile hunting ground for errant mines. It was a mixed blessing for the sailors who encountered the mines: They knew they would be removing a hazard, but the risks of being enveloped in a potentially lethal explosion were always there.
That’s when the crew’s training would take over, according to Howard. Of course it didn’t hurt possessing the “invincibility” of youth.
“You have to be who you are — young and foolish,” he said.
In 1968, Howard made the next (and final) stop on his tour of the Far East: Vietnam. The United States’ participation in the conflict was ramping up. Howard boarded the USS Joseph Strauss — a guided-missile destroyer — that made its way to the war-torn nation in Southeast Asia.
The Strauss’s mission was to provide artillery support for U.S. ground troops, including SEAL Team 2. When called upon, the Strauss would unleash an explosive flurry of projectiles from its two gun mounts — which fired shells from 54-foot-long barrels — and a combination of ASROC and Tartar guided missiles.
“It was pretty powerful stuff,” Howard said. “You couldn’t be on deck when they were shooting them.”
While the Strauss was usually kept out of range from enemy fire, that didn’t keep the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong from trying.
“When we were shooting, they were shooting back,” Howard said.
Howard didn’t have a specific assignment aboard the Strauss. He helped out wherever he could, often working in the radio room and delivering messages to the skipper.
He spent almost all of his time aboard the ship, save for occasional shore time in Saigon and in the nearby Philippines.
Howard left the Navy on Sept. 11, 1970. Like many Vietnam veterans, he exited with some frustration.
“I was against the Vietnam War, as most people were,” Howard said.
But he knew he needed to do his duty to contribute to the war effort.
“I wanted to win the war, which we didn’t,” Howard said. “I was trained to do what I had to do, and I did it.”
Howard has continued his service to others in civilian life, though he is fighting a war of his own that he is fortunately winning.
His battle is with substance abuse, and he is happy to report he has been clean and sober for 28-and-a-half years. But he knows that, just as in battle, he must remain disciplined and work with others if he is to prevail.
As a result, he became involved with the Turning Point Center of Addison County, a nonprofit organization that offers programs to those in recovery from drug and/or alcohol abuse. Howard serves as board president for Turning Point, where he can often be found chatting with the many people who visit in the organization on Creek Road.
He’s happy to share his story about he got clean and sober.
It was during the late-1980s. He had proposed to his current wife, Gloria, who said no, but gave him a glimmer of hope.
Howard recounted Gloria’s message: “When you’ve been clean for a year, we’ll talk about it.”
It seemed like a daunting task, rendered tougher by the fact he was surrounded by people who had encouraged his drug use.
Enter a childhood friend, Johnny Budd: Johnny invited him to stay at his hunting cabin, outside of Brunswick, Maine. Howard stayed there, away from drugs and bad influences, until he no longer had the urge to use. That isolation, coupled with the potential reward of marriage to Gloria, saw him through those dark days.
Howard and Gloria got married on Sept. 22, 1990, and are still together, living in Middlebury.
Now retired from a lengthy career as a trucker, Howard has expanded his civic service to include children. The boy voted “class clown” by his 8th-grade class is finally living up to that potential: He’s a member of the Rutland-based Cairo Shriners and happily dons clown makeup to put a smile on children’s faces during area parades. He goes by the clown name of “Papa,” and regularly hones his skills at the Shriners’ clown institute in Plymouth, Mass.
The Shriners raise funds to support around 20 hospitals nationwide that treat children with orthopedic needs, burns, spinal cord injuries, and cleft lip and palate.
“It’s so rewarding,” Howard said of his work with the Shriners. “It makes you feel like you’re making a difference … I enjoy having fun, and I enjoy seeing other people have fun.”
When he’s not helping out at Turning Point or with the Shriners, he can often be found cooking up food for homeless folks at the Charter House Coalition’s warming shelter on North Pleasant Street.
One of the biggest rewards Howard gets from his work is being surrounded by people.
“I’m a man who doesn’t like to be alone,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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