A Hand Through the Darkness: The Role of Personal Connection in Lt Col Jason Howell's Recovery from Invisible Wounds

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  • Invisible Wounds Initiative

In the solitude of a basement in the heartland of the United States, a man raised a gun to end his life. At that moment, an invisible hand reached through the darkness and exposed a sliver of light. It unveiled a murky decade of internal strife with post-traumatic stress and invisible wounds of war. Inching away from the darkness, the light revealed that he was not alone. For he still had people he loved, people he connected with, and people who believed he had a chance to get better.

Since 1989, retired Lt Col Jason Howell dedicated his life to serving in the United States Air Force. As a young man, he aspired to advance his life through education and decided to join the Air Force because of the opportunities it presented. For 15 years, he navigated a National Guard career path that took him from fixing planes to flying them; from an enlisted Airman to an officer.

By 2004, Howell was a Captain for the 10th Air Support Operations Squadron (ASOS) and an Air Liaison Officer (ALO) out of Fort Riley, Kansas. In May of that year, his deployment to Iraq set in motion circumstances that would ultimately lead to his attempted suicide a decade later.

“We called it the wild west of Iraq. I was in Ramadi, not too far from Al-Fallujah, which was a real hotbed area at the time,” Howell recalled. For the duration of his deployment, Howell would come to experience several close calls with death.

Rockets and mortar attacks were constant – during the day, at night, and even as Howell slept. “If you didn’t get them one day, you knew you were in trouble the next,” he said. There were several attacks that made him drop to the ground and prepare for impact. The closest one he experienced was less than 50 yards away. “You would hear them and every time you would think to yourself ‘this is the moment I am going to die.’”

“You were always seeing death and destruction around you.” Howell described convoy vehicles regularly destroyed by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). In one instance, he felt a sniper bullet whiz past his ear while walking the perimeter of the base. Or another time, he witnessed a Marine missing everything below the waist carried into a medical tent. Howell’s close encounters with death and destruction constantly looming stayed with him long after his deployment, in the form of invisible wounds.

“I had a couple of nightmares over there, but it wasn’t really anything I worried about. Coming home was when I really started to notice more things, especially the anger. I had a short fuse, and any little thing would set me off.” Howell would often come home from work in a negative mood, and his family bore the effects. His other symptoms included flashbacks, irritability, poor sleep, hypervigilance, isolation, and a fear of large crowds. Although he started noticing his symptoms after his 2004 deployment, Howell’s invisible wounds were intensified by his subsequent 2005 deployment to Iraq.

Returning home in 2005, Howell was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, where his isolation and inability to connect with others became more apparent. “I didn’t really like going to work. I didn’t really like doing a lot of stuff I was previously doing,” he said. “I would go to work and colleagues or peers made me feel like I was not one of them. I had no one to talk to, no one who understood what I went through.”

Over several years, Howell deployed four more times –to Qatar, Curacao, and back to Iraq. Around 2014, Howell returned to the 55th Wing, and that year underwent a third surgery on his left shoulder. During the recovery period from that surgery Howell attempted to take his own life.

“I had been thinking about killing myself for two to three years at that point. I had been living in physical pain for over three years and dealing with mental issues for about 10,” Howell said. “My wife and kids were gone for the day, and I went to the basement to shoot myself.” But before he could pull the trigger, something stopped him. “Twice in my life, I had seen God’s hand reach into places to save people. One was in Iraq back in 2004 and the second was there in my basement.” Even then, Howell thought his invisible wounds were manageable. But after his wife’s insistence, he knew he had to get better and decided to seek help.

In 2015, he attended his first mental health appointment, where he was diagnosed with several cognitive and behavioral conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Howell went into his appointment with the misconception that mental health professionals and diagnoses were harmful to his career. “Going in I was very guarded, but I learned quickly that it’s not having an issue that’s the problem; it’s not getting better. The first couple years of therapy that we did was really about giving me the tools that I was able to use to deal with issues.” Contrary to his beliefs that mental health support would derail his career path, Howell remained active duty and continued his career and recovery for the next few years.

Throughout his recovery, Howell tried various treatments including medication, individual therapy, and group therapy, but was not seeing any noticeable improvements. One supportive treatment that provided significant relief was his service dog, Mystic.

In 2018, he was in the window to deploy again, this time to the Middle East. Both Howell and his mental health providers determined that another deployment would likely have a detrimental impact on Howell’s mental health recovery. At that point, his providers recommended he undergo a medical evaluation board (MEB) process. Knowing his retention on active duty was unlikely, Howell’s new commander proceeded to offer support for his transition out of the military. “Just having a commander, who was also a friend, being that advocate really helped a lot throughout that process,” he said. After 29 years and four months serving in the Air Force, Howell transitioned to civilian life.

Upon retirement, Howell became increasingly involved with the Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) program. At first, Howell believed he wasn’t a fit for the program, saying “This isn’t for me, this is for guys missing legs and who have physical injuries.” Eventually, however, he became an Ambassador for AFW2, through which he was able to share his experiences and find connections with others.

In these shared experiences with fellow AFW2 Warriors, he experienced a critical moment in his recovery. Howell traveled to Scotland with several other Warriors for an event called the Cateran Yomp, a 26 to 52-mile hike through the Scottish Highlands to fundraise money for other wounded, ill, or injured soldiers from around the world.
“That trip started everything for me because I was able to open up and bond with those guys. Just that connection and not being alone was massive,” Howell recalled. “Being able to open up to people and talk about what happened to me, hearing what happened to them, and being able to connect and build those relationships is what I really think got me to where I am.”

Howell currently works as a civilian in the Inspector General’s Office at Offutt AFB. As his wife likes to point out to him, he now returns home from work in a positive mood. “I’m in a much better place and I still have some issues but I’m able to minimize the impact of them and continue to work and have a good productive life,” he said.
For those who continue to serve in the Air Force with invisible wounds, Howell urges Airmen, Guardians, and leaders to seek peer support and community. “Have compassion and realize that you never know what someone has been through. Listen to them when they want to talk, be there as best as you can, and really support them in whatever way they need to recover.”

Lt Col Jason Howell rose from that basement because he knew he needed to get better, both for himself and those who were connected to him. His story reminds us that sometimes all it takes to get better is a helping hand, outstretched and open to those who find themselves alone in the dark, not knowing that there are others who may need their hand as well.


Editor Note: Invisible wounds are as real and severe as physical wounds. If left untreated invisible wounds can have negative impacts on an Airman’s or Guardian’s personal and professional life. It is important for Airmen and Guardians to recognize signs and symptoms of invisible wounds in themselves and in their peers, to ensure a mentally strong, resilient, and lethal Total Force. The Air Force is committed to supporting Airmen and Guardians living with invisible wounds by providing a wide range of resources to support their recovery journey. To share your own stories of invisible wounds and/or learn about available resources visit www.MissionReadyForce.com.