By Kim West
Elkmont resident Stanley Howell is a grandfather who adopted his late daughter’s only child, a husband who celebrated his 41st wedding anniversary on April 10 and a patient fighting stage-4 colon and liver cancer.
He is also a soft-spoken country boy from Loretto, Tenn., enlisting in the Army at age 18 during the Vietnam War and returning home after serving a 12-month tour spanning 1969-70.
Howell, 65, received an honorable discharge after surviving much of his tour stationed behind enemy lines despite sustaining concussive injuries from land mine explosions as part of 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) and attached with 4th Squadron, 12th Cavalry
He and his wife, Ann, are raising their 10-year-old granddaughter Madison, a fourth-grader at Elkmont High School, and living with the grief of losing two daughters as Howell undergoes chemotherapy treatments.
But Howell, whose positive and warm demeanor belies the multiude of challenges he has faced, recently received a morale boost, reuniting with his closest wartime buddy, Dale Bale, 64, for a three-day visit in Limestone County.
The last time they saw each other was Aug. 4, 1970, when they returned home from Vietnam.
Their reunion included plenty of reminiscing and sharing family stories, dinner at the Fried Tomato Buffet in Ardmore, Tenn., and a trip to the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens.
Howell and Bale, who grew up in a coal-mining community, both said they had not missed a beat in their friendship forged as teenagers, describing the first night back together as unforgettable and “very emotional.”
“It had been (nearly) 44 years since we had seen each other and he drove from West Virginia,” Howell said. “We had just lost contact when we returned home because I had lost his address and he had lost mine. Even after that time, everything just came together because he’s like a brother to me. It felt like we could have talked for days.”
Howell’s surviving child, 34-year-old Blake Howell of Elkmont, helped spur the comrades’ reunion, searching the Internet for Bale’s contact information after his father mentioned Dale during an episode of the History Channel’s “Appalachian Outlaws.”
“The show is filmed about three miles from Dale’s house and his wife is kin to some of the (show’s characters),” Howell said. “We were watching the show and I told Blake, ‘Hey, that’s where my buddy’s from,’ and he looked on the computer and found his phone number. I called Dale up and he said, ‘I’m coming to see you, Stan.’”
‘Glad to be alive’
“We met while serving in ’69 and ’70 in the Quang Tri (Province) in Vietnam, right up next to the (demilitarized zone) — we were about as far north in (South) Vietnam as you could get,” Howell said. “Dale and I both were in (separate) tanks and we went on search and destroy missions together. We slept in cots maybe three weeks because we were in the field and sleeping on the ground most of the time.”
Howell was converted from an infantryman to a driver and later a tank commander, while Bale was a gunner. Bale said they rode in the M-48 tanks with a 90mm gun and Sheridan tanks with 152mm combustible cartridges, regularly encountering land mines and coming under fire from rocket-propelled grenades.
Due to lost paperwork, Howell said he has never received his Purple Heart medal with an oak leaf cluster, which is awarded when a service member is wounded twice in combat. He is currently attempting to get the necessary paperwork completed and approved for the belated decoration.
“Dale was blown up three times in tanks and I was blown up twice,” Howell said. “I would have received two Purple Hearts but my records got destroyed.”
When asked if they would ever return to Vietnam as civilians, Howell and Bale grinned but quickly answered there were too many negative memories.
“We wouldn't give a million dollars for our experience in Vietnam but we wouldn't give one cent to go back,” Bale said.
Bale, a retired golf course superintendent who has a crop and cattle farm with his wife Nancy, has hearing aids and diabetes, while Howell has multiple health issues from the cancer and his war injuries.
But they said they felt grateful to have survived to raise their families, with each having three children. Bale has five grandchildren, while Howell has three.
“Our unit was about 300-strong and probably more than 150 or more have passed away,” Howell said. “It’s just great we’re alive and we made it this far.”