Recovering from the Iraq War

Published 10:50 am Friday, November 11, 2011

Jay Howton was deployed in the Middle East as part of Iraqi Freedom in 2005. -- Eric Johnson/

Injured in action, Iraq veteran still feels effects of combat

It only took one short deployment for military veteran Jay Howton of Rose Creek to feel the effects of war.

Though Howton had a long history in the Navy and National Guard, his deployment to Iraq with a Guard unit from Austin in 2005 was tough.

“Two days before I came home, I got blown up for the third time,” Jay said, and mentioned others traveling in his transportation company had it just as bad or worse. The second time Jay was hit by an explosion, in June of 2005, a man in his unit was killed.

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Jay was 40-years-old when he deployed, so he felt an extra obligation to look out for 18- 19- and 20-year-olds as he was the same age as some of their parents and knew some of them, too.

“The worst nightmare is to have to come back as one of those guy’s leader and have to say, ‘Hey, you know, I didn’t keep him alive.’ You take responsibility for it. That was the hardest part for me,” he said.

But among those stresses, Jay admitted the hardships he went through in Iraq were harder on others, especially those who witnessed injuries and deaths.

“I think it’s harder on some of those guys than it is yourself,” he said.

Those events were obviously hard on Jay’s family, as well.

“I was fortunate in the fact to find out he was injured when he called me,” said Jay’s wife, Linda Howton.

She was fortunate because when Jay called, she knew he was alive. At that time, she was co-leader of the Family Readiness Group and was one of the few people in line to find out about casualties before others.

But even though time heals for some, that hasn’t always been the case for the Howtons. When Jay returned, he had major spinal injuries and had to receive ongoing medical attention. His extremities had numbness that wouldn’t seem to go away, he said. Though his motor skills are OK now, he had symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well.

“I think it’s harder now, day-to-day,” Linda said about life being tougher than the initial shock of learning about Jay’s incident.

The Howtons’ son and daughter have been affected as well.

“They were old enough to remember what he was like before he deployed,” Linda said, who mentioned how Jay’s demeanor has changed since his deployment.

“They miss the dad that they had before,” she added.

But instead of wallowing in the past, the Howtons are forging forward, going on with life. The Howtons’ daughter, Emily, is going through college, and their son, Jacob, will enlist in the military after he graduates from high school.

“He still has a sense of pride, and he wants to serve,” Linda said.

The Howtons aren’t looking back and clearly are not in denial about life’s stresses. Jay is a realist about the situation.

“You adjust,” Jay said, and added that families going through the same things often want their lives to go back to the way they were.

“That’s impossible,” he added.

Even though the Howtons admit life is emotionally tougher than it used to be for them, they have been fortunate.

Jay, an assistant production manager at Akkerman Inc. in Brownsdale, was able to return to his job in 2006. Even though he has been working there for 21 years, he said it was hard to re-adjust to that position. Still, others have it worse. Many returning from service can’t find jobs, especially with today’s job market. Jay doesn’t know what he would have done if he couldn’t have returned to Akkerman, and feels sympathy for those who can’t find work.

“Oh man, I really think it would be hard for anybody to find a job now,” he said.

Furthermore, the Howtons have the support of other service men and women who served with Jay. For Jay in particular, it’s hard to attend Veterans Day or Memorial Day celebrations, but he does find some common ground with those who have gone through the rigors with him.

“We all understand each other,” he said. “We understand the struggle.”

However, Jay was willing to give a presentation to youngsters, teaching them about the military and some of the hardships. Linda may realize that sort of thing is a stepping stone to moving on.

“In spite of all the difficulty, we’re better people,” she said.

Despite the military being tough on the Howtons, they said they have no regrets.