Chesterfield resident James Howard in front of Veterans and Athletes United's traveling memorial flag.
Duty, honor and devotion to country are in the DNA of retired U.S. Army Capt. James Howard.
Born into a large military family – his father served during Vietnam and his grandfather was in the 82nd Airborne in World War II – the Lynchburg native was commissioned as an Army officer in 2002 after graduating from Virginia Military Institute.
Deployed to Iraq, he suffered a concussion during a January 2004 firefight in which his patrol was ambushed by 10 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and his vehicle was hit by two rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
Only a month later, Howard was on foot patrol with one of his team leaders when four IEDs exploded about 10 feet from them. The force from the blast knocked him off his feet and he sustained another concussion, a broken collarbone and damage to his C-level vertebrae.
“I dodged a couple close calls,” Howard recalled in a telephone interview earlier this week.
His good fortune didn’t follow him back stateside. Howard suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident that left him a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down with no hand or leg function.
Forced to retire on disability from the Army in 2010, Howard found himself “in a rough spot.” His sudden adjustment to civilian life was complicated by the difficulty of getting around and performing everyday tasks in a wheelchair inaccessible house.
More than a decade later, Howard now considers his injury “a blessing from misfortune.”
He rediscovered his sense of purpose by launching a pair of nonprofits. Veterans and Athletes United (VAU) has supported more than 6,000 disabled veterans since 2013 through accessible retreats and adaptive sports programs. REACHcycles has provided more than 1,000 specially adapted bicycles to children with disabilities.
Running the nonprofits “pretty much saved my life,” Howard said. “I quit feeling sorry for myself and it gave me my drive back. Now whenever I have a bad day, I just think about helping kids.”
On Memorial Day 2018, VAU completed a traveling memorial that honors the sacrifice of soldiers killed in the global war on terror and their Gold Star families.
The 28-feet wide by 6-feet tall memorial symbolizes the shape of the American flag when draped over a fallen service member’s casket. It is formed from more than 7,000 military dog tags and also incorporates 50 gold stars representing families of troops killed in action.
“We’re trying to bring awareness of the heavy price paid for this flag and to keep our country free,” Howard said. “We hope our memorial provides an opportunity for visitors to honor, reflect and heal.”
Last November, Howard was invited to accompany the memorial flag to a Veterans Day event in Washington. As he was checking into his hotel with his wife, Amanda, and young son Luke, Howard happened to cross paths with Frank Siller, chairman and CEO of the Tunnel 2 Towers Foundation, and they struck up a conversation.
Siller and his family started the foundation in memory of his younger brother, Stephen, a New York City firefighter who was killed in the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Later at the Veterans Day event, as he was preparing to go onstage and provide remarks, Siller turned to Howard and told him he no longer had to worry about paying the mortgage on his home in Chesterfield’s Loch Braemar subdivision.
For more than 20 years, the Tunnel 2 Towers Foundation has supported America’s first responders, military veterans and their families by providing them with mortgage-free homes.
Tunnel 2 Towers also has funded renovations to Howard’s residence, adding square footage and "smart" features that make it wheelchair accessible. On Thursday at 11 a.m., the eve of another Veterans Day, the foundation will host a ceremony formally dedicating the home at 2536 Falkirk Drive to Howard and his family. The event is open to the public.
"After Stephen died on 9/11, my family and I made a decision to make our brother’s legacy one of great joy and not sadness. I am honored to have the opportunity to help people like James, who risked life and limb for the freedoms we all enjoy. James is an inspiration for his commitment to his country and to helping his fellow veterans,” Siller said.
Howard, who has dedicated his life to doing for others, called the foundation’s support “unreal.”
“Knowing that my family is taken care of, whether I die tomorrow or 40 years from now, gives me such peace of mind,” he said. “It’s the most generous gift I could’ve ever received.”