You can’t keep Jack Howell grounded. It’s been a matter of service. And survival. “I’m in excellent health now,” he says, with emphasis on now. “I will be in two weeks 73. And I just keep on ticking. I’m like the cockroach. Can’t kill us.”
Four years ago he raised $4,000 and flew to Colorado with Cora Rand, one of his teen pilots in training, to deliver the money survivors of the Aurora movie theater shooting weeks before, which killed 12 and injured 58. Just a few months earlier he’d been seriously hurt in a motorcycle accident and hospitalized. A year later he had triple bypass surgery, what he calls “a gift from Agent Orange,” the defoliant with which the military drenched the jungles of Vietnam during the war—and soldiers like Howell along with it, causing untold health problems and deaths to this day. (Howell served as a Marine in Vietnam, and retired a colonel.) A year after the heart surgery, it was another motorcycle crash, that one putting an end to his bike days for good.
And through it all, Howell kept his non-profit going: founded in 2006 to serve the children of servicemen killed or hurt in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts since 2001, Teens In Flight has been training young pilots for about 10 years. About 100 have gone through the program.
That’s the service that got him on the shortlist of 20 nominees from across the country for the 2016 Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s Citizen Honor. The foundation, a creation of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, is designed to bring attention to the medal of honor—the nation’s highest military honor, awarded for extraordinary personal valor—and further its ideals beyond the military.
Past winners included Michael Landsberry, the Reno, Nev., teacher who tried to disarm 12-year-old Jose Reyes in the Sparks Middle School shooting in 2013 that injured two students and ended with Landsberry and Reyes dead, and Michael Reagan, of Edmonds, Wash., who founded the “Fallen Heroes Project”, a non-profit organization that serves the needs of families that lost soldiers to war.
The awards are split between acts of heroism and service acts. Howell was nominated in the service category.
“Certainly with all the people I’ve saved as a lifeguard supervisor in 18 years in Jacksonville I could easily qualify” for the heroism award, Howell said this morning, “but here they gave it for service above the norm, so I got that because for 10 years I’ve been devoted to Teesn in Flight.”
A survivor of the jungles of Vietnam, of Agent Orange, of two motorcycle wrecks and a triple-bypass keeps “ticking.”
Making the list of nominees was enough, Howell said. “I was overwhelmed. This is a pretty big deal, and it further, I want to say, validates what I do, that I’m a straight up charity, that we’re not a rip-off,” Howell said. “It’s an honorable thing that I do, that’s the key, and it’s in keeping with the mission of the Medal of Honor Foundation. And you know me, I’m a straight-forward guy, I’m not going to do anything dishonest, unlike the Wounded Warrior program, I’m sure you heard, they finally got nailed. Every penny we receive goes right to the kids. So this was a really big deal. I’m humbled by it. I’m just in awe that they would select me.” (The Wounded Warrior Project, which in 2015 got $372 million in donations, was found to spend 40 percent of its donations on overhead, some of it in lavish perks for its employees.)
Cindy Dalecki, owner of Marketing 2 Go, the Palm Coast firm, and a member of the Teens in Flight board of directors, nominated Howell for the award. This morning, Dalecki issued a release about his being short-listed.
“All of our veterans that serve obviously deserve recognition,” Dalecki said, “and there are so many in our community that give back in some form or another. Col. Howell is one of those people that give wholeheartedly to his kids, his flight students, and he so deserved it. And they’ve got challenges with aircraft repair now. I’m hoping the community will step up and help him with the rebuilding of the the plane so these kids will continue to grow and conquer some of their PTSD and the things that are going in in their lives.”
Charlie Ericksen, the Flagler County Commissioner who is also the secretary of Teens in Flight, gushed about Howell: “He’s a tireless behind the scenes mover in Flagler County, especially with the kids,” Ericksen said. “We’ve had over 100 young men and women come into the Teens in Flight program. Not all of them graduate because they find other interests as they mature in the high school years, yet we’ve got some men who are already in helicopter flight school down in Alabama, we’ve got one young woman locally here who was the same one who flew out to Colorado with him when they took out some funds for one of the tragedies out there. She’s one of the shining lights in the ladies’ Teens in Flight program. Jack is a superman, and I also believe it’s true Jack was one of the finalists—probably glad he didn’t win that award—he was one of the finalists that allowed the first school teacher to go up in the space shuttle that exploded on take-off. I’m sure glad he didn’t win that one. He’s a tough man to know, tough man to work for, yet he’s results-oriented and the kids are the first thing that come to mind when you talk to him. I’m proud to be not only a friend but a military veteran standing next to him.” (Ericksen was a commissioned officer in the Army.)
This year’s winners include Chris Mintz of Roseburg, Ore., selected for his courageous act last Oct. 1 “when he confronted a shooter on the campus of Umpqua Community College, preventing further loss of life,” the Congressional medal of Honor Foundation’s website states. “Mintz, an army veteran, was shot 7 times and continues to recover from his wounds.” James Vernon of Morton, Ill., was selected for a similar act of courage just two weeks later “when he subdued a would-be attacker who threatened to kill 20 middle school students and their parents participating in an after-school chess club meeting at the public library. While all of the children were unharmed, Vernon was injured in the attack.” In the service category, Lt. Col. Eileen Hadbavny (Ret.) of Charleston, S.C., “was selected for her lifetime of selfless service in support of veterans through her volunteer work with the Red Cross, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.”
Teens in Flight this year has eight students, but one of Howell’s planes is grounded. It needs a $24,000 engine. He’s fund-raising for that, and has raised about half the money so far, through a $5,000 grant from the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and $2,500 from one of the Kiwanis clubs in the county, among others. “I put seven grand in out of my own money,” Howell said.
Anyone interested in donating, may contact Col. Howell directly at 386-569-5685. The donations are tax deductible.