Son of Norwich soldier killed in Vietnam reflects on the legacy of his death

Robert Howard signs a copy of the book 'The Price They Paid,' which includes his story of growing up without his father as Saint Bernard headmaster Donald Macrino looks on. (Photo courtesy of Saint Bernard)
Robert Howard signs a copy of the book "The Price They Paid," which includes his story of growing up without his father as Saint Bernard headmaster Donald Macrino looks on. (Photo courtesy of Saint Bernard)

Robert Howard II grew up angry that the father he barely remembered seemed to be revered in his hometown of Norwich even years after Howard Sr. was killed in action in Vietnam on June 10, 1969.

As a teenager, Howard II brushed off people trying to tell him stories about his dad, and hated being called “Bobby’s boy." By the time he reached high school at Saint Bernard School in Montville — his dad was a 1964 graduate of Norwich Free Academy — he wanted to break every one of his father’s football records that had landed him posthumously in the Norwich Sports Hall of Fame.

Two major senior year injuries curtailed that effort, but not before Howard II got to hear radio announcers at games refer to him once again as “Bobby Howard’s son.”

Howard II doesn’t bristle at the mention of his father now. Instead, he breaks out in an easy, wide and appreciative smile as people shake his hand and mention his father’s own good nature, easy-going personality.

Howard II returned to both his father’s alma mater and his own on Monday to deliver several copies of a new book that chronicles the long-lasting effects the Vietnam War had on soldiers, their commanders and their families.

The book, “The Price They Paid: Enduring Wounds of War,” written by Michael Putzel, includes a chapter on Howard II that describes his experiences following his father’s death and his two-decade-long quest to help children of lost soldiers remember and embrace their lost parents.

The Norwich Lions Club has donated copies of the book to all public and parochial elementary, middle and high schools in Norwich and Sprague, and to Saint Bernard School.

Howard II and his mother, Roberta Vincent, a member of the Lions Club, hand-delivered the books Friday and Monday.

At NFA, Howard II handed several books to Karen Cook, head of the school history department, and to Kristie Leonard, director of the Edwin Land Library. Cook invited Howard II to return to NFA in spring to speak to students during their study of the Vietnam War.

They also delivered three copies to Saint Bernard on Monday, where a group of students at Howard II's alma mater, many dressed in pajamas instead of their school uniforms for spirit week, listened to his story.

Howard II was only 4 years old when his father was killed during a rescue operation in A Shau Valley in Vietnam.

"I didn't know the effect that the loss of my father would have on me until later on," Howard II told the students.

Howard II, who now lives in Hartford and has three sons of his own, may have been one of the only children of Vietnam War soldiers killed to receive his own, personalized letters when his father died.

William H. Zierdt, Howard Sr.'s troop commander in Vietnam, wrote the letter in 1969 to 4-year-old Howard II.

"I am writing as both a personal friend of your father's and as his troop commander," Zierdt wrote. "I want you to know what a very special kind of man your father was, and how great was his loss to me and to his many friends."

That moment defined much of Howard II's life.

"I grew up with this hole in my heart that couldn't be filled," he said.

"You never think about these children that the veterans had," he added. "We were this forgotten entity... I internalized a lot of things that happened to my father. I went through stuff, too."

Howard II struggled to live up to his father's reputation. He was only able to come to terms with the hole his father's death had left once he travelled to Vietnam to see the place where Howard Sr. had died.

Standing near the landing zone in the A Shau Valley, Howard II finally removed the picture of his father that had been hanging on a chain around his neck for years.

Howard II said he was touched when Putzel approached him to be a part of the book, and shocked when the author decided to devote an entire chapter to his life.

He said he hopes his story can help children who have lost parents in combat recover their sense of optimism.

"I'm hoping that I can let them know, 'Hey, it will be OK,'" he said. "You're going to go through your headaches, you're going to go through your ups and downs, but at the end of the day, if you can take that and use it in a positive sense, you can definitely overcome it." 

Howard II said when he delivered books to the Samuel Huntington Elementary School in Norwich last week, he met a third-grade boy who had just lost his father.

Howard II said he explained to the boy how he, too, had lost his dad as a small child and that it would take time, maybe a lot of time, before he felt better.

"Anytime I can reach out and help somebody, it helps me," Howard II said Monday. "It lets me know my father is still getting me to do stuff. And I didn't even know the man."

Editor's note: This version corrects the photo caption to indicate Robert Howard II did not write the book he's signing but his life story appears in the book written by Michael Putzel. 

c.bessette@theday.com

m.shanahan@theday.com

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