Tom Howell is a hero. Last month, the Disabled American Veterans made it official, honoring the former Dunedin Marine with its Community of Heroes award for his efforts helping fellow service members transition from war to civilian life.
Howell, 42, served with the Marines from 1992 to 1995 in Iraq and Somalia. He was medically discharged after sustaining serious back and knee problems.
A native of upstate New York, Howell moved in 1997 to the Tampa Bay area, which he came to know during a stint at MacDill Air Force Base. He worked as a corrections officer and, for a time, as a deputy sheriff in Tennessee; but, like many veterans, Howell struggled with life after the military.
"I didn't feel like I had a sense of purpose anymore," he said.
"It's a tough transition."
Howell struggled through his injuries for several years, but his body was deteriorating. He went through the Veterans Administration's vocational rehabilitation program - twice - hoping to transition into work his body could handle; but his injuries put too much of a strain on him.
After years of his uncle and dad urging him to get involved with the DAV, the time was right in 2006 or 2007. He found people he could talk to about his experiences - people who had been through the same thing, who knew what he was going through and wouldn't judge him. He also found a new sense of purpose: helping veterans like him jump back into civilian life.
"Some of the guys, they just need somebody to talk to," Howell said. "It's a lot easier to talk to someone like that than it is to, say, go to the doctor right away."
Many veterans come home with post-combat issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder; they need jobs, VA benefits. Howell, who has gotten to know how the system works, puts the returning vets in touch with the right people, drives people to appointments and is training to fill out people's paperwork for VA benefits.
"It's really a huge help," Howell said.
"You have someone there to help you, and they're behind you."
Howell has found a home with the DAV. He's president of Chapter 11 in Clearwater and hopes to become involved at the state and national levels. Ultimately, he would like to help pass legislation that would make it easier for returning service members to transition back to civilian life. One thing that would make a lot of difference would be making it clear to veterans, up front, what benefits they're eligible for, Howell said. "They don't really tell you."
Thanks, Tom, for all you're doing. With so many veterans returning home, and struggling to find their places in the world after the military, I hope we'll have more people like you here to help.
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