Widow of Soc Trang Tiger Riding With The Patriot Guard
by LAUREN VESPOLI
In the parking lot of the chapel at the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Patricia Howardell asks me if I want a picture on her bike—the “Cadillac of Harleys,” a 2011 TriGlide Ultra Classic with a spacious back seat and a trunk for storage.
Pat is a retired nurse, the widow of Alan Howardell, a veteran of the 121st Aviation Assault Helicopter Company in the Vietnam War, and the current partner of Gary Herbert of the 174th Assault Helicopter Company, also a Vietnam veteran. Her 18-year-old son, Jalen, has enlisted in the Navy; he wants to be a submariner. Pat likes raising chickens, gardening, shooting pool, fishing in the Ottauquechee River behind her house, snowmobiling and backgammon. She loves riding her motorcycle with the Patriot Guard Riders—a group of bikers who attend military funerals to honor fallen veterans created in opposition to the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church, which disrupts military funerals by claiming death is a punishment from God for a sinful nation. The Patriot Guard Riders hold flags and stand between the funeral and the protestors. Pat also recently organized a recognition ceremony for Vermont high school seniors entering the military. She is a thin woman with graying brown curls and deep-set, blue-green eyes on a face tanned and worn by exposure to winds at highway speeds.
I climb on the motorcycle and rest my hands on the handlebars as Pat encourages me to look like I’m riding.
“Go like this,” she says, holding a hand in the air and making devil horns with her pointer finger and pinky. I smile, in my red raincoat, black shorts and brown leather sandals, making the universal symbol for “rock on.”
I’m posing on the bike when Bob Wheeler, captain of the Vermont Patriot Guard Riders, announces the hearse’s arrival. The fallen veteran the Guard will stand for today was in the Navy during the Korean War. None of us know the dead man, but that’s not the point. The Patriot Guard motto is “Standing for Those who Stood for Us.” So we follow Bob to his red SUV, where he pulls out the pieces of 10-foot tall flagpoles he has constructed himself from white PVC pipe. Bob assembles a pole for me and pulls off the rubber bands holding the flag to the pole, unfurling the stars and stripes. It’s difficult to balance, and I let the pole and flag tilt to the side.
“The flag never dips,” Pat tells me. I try to straighten the pole. “The only other rule is don’t let it touch the ground.” I follow Bob, Pat, Gary, a woman with short gray hair and an older man named Bud up the hill from the parking lot, where the deceased’s family members are emerging from their cars, stretching and hugging, to the nondenominational chapel overlooking the cemetery and the cloud-veiled mountains beyond. We line up along either side of the short walk leading into the chapel. Pat tells me to stand beside her. “If you feel sick, lean against the wall.” I nod, confused. “It happens,” she assures me. She instructs me on proper etiquette: stand the flag pole to the right of my feet, hold it with my right arm, and keep my left arm behind my back. When called to attention, bring the flagpole in front of my body. When I hear “present arms,” move my right hand up the pole so my elbow juts out at a right angle.
“Rings toward you, that’s how I always remember it,” instructs Pat. “Just do what I do. I always mess up.” Her ring finger is encircled in delicate gold, a contrast to her black leather vest dotted with veteran support badges.
A white-bearded man in a decorated Navy uniform and calls attention. “Present arms!” I watch Pat’s motions out of the corner of my eye. I don’t want to mess up and inadvertently disrespect the dead. Two men wheel the coffin down the walk. A large American flag is draped over it. The funeral guests follow it inside. I look at the cement in front of my feet, avoiding any chance of eye contact with these strangers who might wonder why some girl in shorts is honoring their loved one with a group of Guard Riders. The military man who has been calling the commands brings up the rear. He stops to shake every flag-bearer’s hand, kissing the women on the cheek.
He approaches me, and I extend my hand. His beard scratches my face as he takes my hand and leans in to kiss my face. “God bless you,” he says.
* * *
“Do you like wolves or lighthouses?” Pat asks me in her earnest voice the first time I visit her at home in Woodstock, Vermont. “Both,” I say. I have no idea why she’s asking.
“Good, take some of these. He spent tons of money on this stuff, and I’ve just been trying to get rid of it.” She gestures to a row of miniature lighthouses and wolves on built-in wooden shelves closest to the windowed porch’s door. The “he” is Alan, Pat’s deceased second husband. I refuse, saying she should keep them. After all, Alan was her husband and I’m a stranger who found her name and number in the local newspaper. But Pat insists. She hands me a red and white lighthouse, a duo of disembodied wolf heads howling and two bookends of lonely wolves, also howling. “Because you’re in college,” she says, explaining the bookends.
I didn’t want the dead man’s statuettes. No matter how much Pat dislikes them, I can’t help but think of these models as part of Alan’s physical legacy. I know Pat has more significant Alan memorabilia. Artifacts from his Vietnam service hang along the staircase and on the walls of her bedroom. For example: the framed outline of a cartoon nude woman, her head turned coyly toward the viewer, her body divided into little numbered sections like some kind of adult paint-by-number.
“It’s kind of sexist,” Pat says, but she explains it was how the soldiers counted down until they could come home to their women. Then she points to a few blank spots by the woman’s left shoulder.
“See? He didn’t finish because he got to come home.” There are pictures of Alan leaning against his chopper during his stint in Vietnam, from November 1964 to November 1965. Alan unit engaged in aerial assault and search and rescue missions; he was a door gunner, a crew chief, and provided airmobile support to other units in the Mekong Delta. He sprayed Agent Orange. In the photograph, “Don’t Cuss Call Us” is stamped on the helicopter’s side in white paint.
Pat has computer files with photos of more of Alan’s Army memorabilia, which she burned to a CD that Alan’s VA doctor hand-delivered to the Library of Congress. But she has none of this reverence for his lighthouses or his wolves. When I finally decide to take Alan’s statuettes out of my car, I put them in an old shopping bag in my closet. There they remain.
* * *
Vietnam is, in some sense, Pat’s war. She remembers watching Walter Cronkite’s reports and seeing images of running soldiers and guns on television during her childhood.
“That was all we saw, but we didn’t talk because it was so close.” Pat remembers at least eight cousins and uncles who served in Vietnam. “You just didn’t talk too much. You prayed a lot.” In her adult life, as a nurse working at the White River Junction VA, the “Vietnamers,” as she calls them, were often her favorite patients.
“My husband could have been a drug addict, but he wasn’t. PTSD—a lot of that is fallacies, not the norm. Do these people like riding their motorcycles and living on the edge? Yes. They’re not shoot’em up cowboys taking hostages. They’re proud of what they did.”
Pat believes that Alan had PTSD. “There were a lot of nightmares. He would wake up talking about snakes. He was a very quiet man, a gentle man. He never hurt anyone.” Alan and Pat didn’t talk about the war much. “He just basically said, ‘It was either them or me, and it damn sure wasn’t going to be me.’ And he said you couldn’t trust anyone, man, woman or child.”
Combat wasn’t the only vestige of the war that haunted Alan. He died of December 2010 of pneumonia due to Parkinson’s Disease “directly attributable to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam,” insists Pat, “100%.” Agent Orange is the infamous defoliant the U.S. military sprayed to clear the jungle. The U.S. government claimed they didn’t know the effects of the toxic chemical on human beings. It wasn’t until 2010—the year that Alan died—that the VA finally established a “presumptive service connection” between Agent Orange, Parkinson’s, and other diseases “associated” with herbicides. Today, veterans with Parkinson’s who were exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides don’t have to prove a connection between their disease and military service in order to receive disability compensation from the VA. Too late for Alan.
Alan was always up front with Pat about his Parkinson’s. They had met through mutual friends in the summer of 2002. Alan, a retired Merck Pharmaceuticals manager from New Jersey, was 14 years Pat’s senior. He got lost in rural New Hampshire driving from his home in Woodstock to Langdon, New Hampshire, where Pat lived, to pick her up for their first lunch date. After three years of courtship, Pat and Alan married in 2005. Despite Alan’s disease he could still drive and play ball with Pat’s three children from her first marriage—Bjorn, now 21, Jalen, 18, and Anilese, 15—giving Pat license to hope, despite her knowledge of the disease’s degenerative nature, that he wouldn’t “lose his mind.” But in the last few months of his life, Alan would smoke imaginary cigarettes in bed, flicking ashes and even handing Pat an invisible ashtray. Near the end, Pat’s most beloved patient could not remember her name. And yet he could hold conversations with the ghosts of dead friends and family.
Alan died in December, a week before Pat’s 51st birthday.
“I just feel two words, honor and remember. People need to know.” She has traveled to the National Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., to the Army Aviation center in Fort Rucker, Alabama, and to the Vietnam Memorial and Education Center in Holmdel, New Jersey for ceremonies in which Alan was honored as one of Vietnam’s late casualties. And then there are the Patriot Guard missions, where every unknown veteran is another chance to honor Alan.
“When I do my missions that’s my opportunity to fall in love with my husband all over again,” Pat says. She always keeps his challenge coin—a round piece of brass identifying him as a Soc Trang Tiger—in her pocket. She says it keeps her centered when her knees shake during a mission, sometimes from the cold air whipping her body as she rides down the freeway, sometimes with the weight of memory and recognition of what the family is going through.
“The Patriot Guard changed my life. When my husband was interned—I’ll never forget those flags and the impact it has. Other than that, I’m just a normal person.”
She and Gary go on up to three or four missions per week. At home, on her laptop, she logs on to the Patriot Guard site to post condolences and get mission updates.
“I have over 6,000 log-ons, which is nothing,” she shows me, scrolling through the simple site. “I go by widowofsoctrangtiger.”
We’re sitting on the porch when she shows me the site. Smokey, the family’s white husky, sniffs the floor. Anilese comes onto the porch, wrapped in a white cotton blanket. Her bristly blonde hair is tied into a short ponytail. She asks her mother what she’s doing and buries her nose into the blanket. “I'm telling Lauren about the Patriot Guard,” Pat says.
Anilese mutters something I don’t catch.
“Do you hear that?” Pat laughs. “She said, ‘that’s all she cares about.’” Anilese munches from a box of almonds and periodically throws an almond down to Smokey, who chews and spits out little bits of the nut. The porch is tidy—while Pat was out riding this morning, Anilese and Jalen cleaned the house as a Mother’s Day present. A strip of flypaper with a few struggling bugs hangs from the ceiling. A glass bowl with a couple of cigarette butts and ashes sits on the table beside us. Behind it are a couple of Marlboro cartons, neatly stacked.
Anilese and is standing behind Pat, stroking her hair. She bends down, close to her mother’s brown curls and holds a strand of her blonde hair up against one of Pat’s.
“My hair is still lighter than yours,” Anilese says, softly. Pat looks at me, and tells me how there are always soldiers dying, how the Patriot Guard riders won’t be out of a job any time soon, how it’s especially powerful to go on missions where the soldier’s remains have no family to claim them.
“You become their family,” she says. Anilese has retreated back into the house.
The Patriot Guard brought Pat and Gary together. They met through Facebook in the winter of 2011. Spring’s burial season brought them face-to-face on a mission in Bennington, Vermont. Like Alan, Gary is also a veteran of a helicopter company in Vietnam. He was stationed in Duc Pho from 1967 to 1969 and has, says Pat, “medals like you wouldn’t believe.” She asks me to include his impressive list of awards: a Vietnam Service Medal, 1 Air Medal with 32 Clusters (a medal for meritorious service while participating in aerial flight), a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star with a V Device, awarded for “participation in acts of heroism, acts of merit or meritorious service in a combat zone.”
“When you love someone so deeply you think your life is over,” she says. Back to Alan. “And you’re a young widow, I had just turned 51 and I’m thinking who’s gonna want me at 51, and I’m not talking about marriage I’m just talking about dating again. What man in his right mind is gonna want a 51-year-old woman with three kids. I wore my black for a year and just resolved that I was gonna raise my kids and that would be it.” But after meeting on that Bennington mission, Gary and Pat began riding together. “You can love two men. For me, one is dead. I can’t erase that, I cherish those memories, but I love Gary.”
* * *
On a warm blue Sunday in mid-May, motorcycles fill the parking lot of the VA Hospital in White River Junction, Vermont, glittering in the sun like jewels. The bikes belong to the Patriot Guard Riders, the Purple Heart Riders, the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, the Legion Riders, and Rolling Thunder, all motorcycle veterans’ support groups who have come to the First Annual Celebration of New High School Enlistees, an event created by Pat for enlisted Vermont high school seniors. Appalled that there was no official recognition for these young men, Pat made it her mission to put one together. She worked with the VA and contacted every Vermont newspaper, every Vermont radio and TV station, and every Vermont high school in the state to publicize the event. The planning and publicity was completed in two weeks, over 500 emails and phone calls later.
Having replaced the Harley Davidson sweatshirts and jeans she wears at home with a red and black dress, black tights and motorcycle boots, on the day of the ceremony Pat stands at the entrance to Building 44 of the VA. The Patriot Guard Riders line the building’s entrance, standing stiff like the flagpoles they hold. Inside the beige auditorium, they will far outnumber the sixteen present enlisted seniors and their families, the crisp lines and clean folds of the military officers and the suits of the Vermont senatorial representatives. The students, their families and I are the only people in attendance out of uniform.
Pat’s not sure of the number of enlisted seniors this year. Last year, including the National Guard, there were about 100.
I take an inconspicuous seat in the back, near the wall soon lined with leather-clad riders holding their flags. A female rider with a gray ponytail and peace-sign earrings sits down beside me. We smile.
Behind me, a gruff voice rumbles: “When I went out, there was none of this. It was ‘get your ass on a train.’” The ceremony is a blur of bureaucratic and military speakers recognizing the gravity of these 15 boys’, and one girl’s, decisions. The students are told they have made a pledge to the Constitution and that they will protect free speech and religious freedom, allowing American citizens to sleep well at night. Free speech: I can’t help but think of how the hateful speech of the Westboro Baptist Church, based on this very tenet, spurred the creation of the Guard.
After the speeches, the high school enlistees rise from their chairs, some in suits and ties, others in jeans and t-shirts, and mumble their names, hometowns, and high schools into the microphone before shaking hands down a line of suits, military uniforms and rider leather. One of the buzz-cut boys leans into the microphone: “Jalen Peterson. Woodstock Union High School. U.S. Navy.” Pat’s Jalen. When I’d asked Pat if I could interview her son about his decision to enlist, she relayed a message for him. “He said, ‘Just tell her it’s what my family does,’” she told me.
* * *
Before kneeling at the foot of Alan’s grave at the Vermont Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery, Pat pours water across the top of the granite headstone, rubbing away bird droppings with her bare hands. Once the headstone is clean, she pulls Alan’s challenge coin from the pocket of her jeans, where she always keeps it, and places it atop the gravestone. She bends over to kiss the wet stone before setting to work peeling away the paper, plastic and rubber bands that conceal the purple and pink bouquet she’ll plant beside it. She sets to work cutting stems and arranging the flowers until the botanic display is to her liking. I stand behind her, noting the precision of her tribute.
“You should look around and see how young some of these guys are,” she says. I am curious, but I take this as a hint that I should leave Pat alone with Alan. I walk among the identical headstones, differentiated only by the crosses at the top—Latin, Roman—and the messages at the bottom of each stone. There’s no organizing principle. Just rows and rows of white granite, unique lives rendered nearly identical.
One Vietnam vet’s stone reads, “I don’t want a pickle.” It’s a line from the chorus of Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 “Motorcycle Song.”
I don’t want a pickle Just want to ride on my motorsickle And I don’t want a tickle ’Cause I’d rather ride on my motorsickle And I don’t want to die Just want to ride my motorcy… cle.
The last line of Alan’s gravestone reads, “Your Loving Wife Forever, Pat.” Either the result of morning dew or last night’s rain, eerie water marks that look like silhouettes of heads and shoulders mark every tombstone, reminders of the men who lie beneath the bright green grass. Pat kneels in front of the flowers in the dew, her head bent close to her interlocked hands. One woman in the sea of narrow, white granite gravestones. Hundreds anonymous, others known—Peter, who cared for Alan during the last days of his life, husbands of Pat’s friends, Alan, the husbands of hundreds of widows who have vowed, some in stone, to love them forever.