NORFOLK, VA, USA U.S. Army SGT, TROOP A, 5TH SQUADRON, 7TH CAVALRY, FORT STEWART, GA SAQLIWIYAH, IRAQ 07/26/2007
They called him Sergeant Howdy. As in Howdy Doody, the television character with a perpetual smile. That was Sergeant William Howdeshell.
“They always come up with names for everyone,” Kimberly Howdeshell, his wife, recalled Wednesday. “He was a big joker. They did a lot of that over there. They keep their sanity by playing jokes.”
Howdeshell never graduated from high school, but he wasn’t just another kid from Illinois with an ear for Metallica and Slayer. He was sharp, smart enough to ace his ASVAB exams when he enlisted in the Navy two years before meeting his future bride. He was 26 when he signed up.
“He qualified for anything,” Kimberly said. “He had many, many choices when he joined.”
Back then, Howdeshell was living in Springfield, where he was born. He became an aviation electrician and set out to see the world. He’d always wanted to be a soldier, but an allergy to ants forced him to pick another branch.
Not yet used to being a widow, Kimberly switches from the past to the present tense and back again as she talks about the man she loved. She knew how it was going to be almost from the time they met, when he showed up one day to fix her roommate’s computer back in Norfolk, Virginia. He was a computer geek. Loved the shoot-’em-up games.
“He’s a smart aleck,” Kimberly says. “He had a smart-alecky answer for everything. I grew up with that. He had a weird sense of humor – that was the main thing.”
Less than a month after the two met, Kimberly married Howdeshell in a simple civil ceremony in Virginia, while a hurricane brewed. They picked August 26 – after all, her birthday is June 26, and he was born on February 26.
“We were soul mates,” she said. “He just looked at me and said, ‘Let’s get married now.’ I said, ‘OK.'”
Howdeshell was also married to the military. On October 26, 2005, he realized his dream and joined the Army via a program that allows service members to transfer to different branches, allergies to ants notwithstanding.
“He loved the service, but he liked the Army a lot better,” Kimberly said. “He didn’t want a 9-to-5 job. He wanted to be out in the middle of everything. I was worried, but I supported him 110 percent.”
Howdeshell became a cavalry scout. The man who’d always loved shooting pretend guns on computers was soon riding in Humvees and shooting guns for real. He went to Iraq in January. Kimberly last saw him in June, when he came home for a two-week leave.
“We went to Disney,” she said. “We went to Busch Garden. We were trying to see all of the family. We spent a couple of days by ourselves. It was too fast.”
By month’s end, Howdeshell was back in harm’s way.
“I talked to him online the day before it happened,” Kimberly said. “He told me they were going on a dangerous mission. He wasn’t allowed to give me any more information.” Army officials have filled in some blanks.
“His vehicle was first in line,” Kimberly said. “They hit an IED. I don’t know how to spell or pronounce the name of the town. He was killed immediately. He didn’t know anything. He felt nothing.”
Two other soldiers, Charles E. Bilbrey, 21, and Jaime Rodriguez, 19, died in the blast. Howdeshell, 37, was commanding the Humvee. Howdeshell’s 8-year-old son, Robert, is coping as best he can.
“He’s having his stages,” Kimberly said. “He’s been crying. He’s been talking to his daddy. He keeps coming up to all of us and hugging us and telling us, ‘It’s OK. We can talk to Daddy.'”
Remarkably poised, Kimberly says she and her husband knew his military career could end in tragedy. Nonetheless, he had just re-enlisted for six years, she said. She won’t renew her wedding vows with Howdeshell on their 10th anniversary next year, as they’d planned. It was going to be a big party, but the date they were wed and the dates they were born have new meaning. Sergeant William R. Howdeshell died on July 26, 2007.