SAN DIEGO - Aundra Howard sat in the first of 12 long rows of folding chairs, his Navy uniform meticulously pressed, family members sitting on his left and right. Among the hundreds of Sailors and family members filling the Naval Special Warfare Special Boat Team 12 Combat Craft Maintenance Facility building at Naval Air Station North Island, Howard was inconspicuous: a tall, young man who outwardly appeared not unlike many others in the building that morning.
Officially, Howard had recently retired, and like other former service members in the crowd, he said he wanted to maintain a connection to the Navy after his service had ended. But Howard still had one piece of military business left to finish before he could call his Navy career complete. At the Fiscal Year 2015 Chief Petty Officer Pinning for Naval Special Warfare’s West Coast commands, about 50 men and women in new khaki uniforms stood at parade rest in neat ranks, poised to become members of the U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Mess, one of the most exclusive military communities in the world. After introductions of distinguished guests, remarks from speakers, and traditional words read about the significance of the step they were about to take, the chief selectees looked to Master Chief Navy Diver Michael Allison, the master of ceremonies, for their cue to move to the front of the formation. Allison began to speak.
“Before we begin pinning the FY-15 Chief Selects,” Allison said, “we’d like to recognize a very special occasion.” Aundra Howard was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up surrounded by influences he had no intention of imitating. That doesn’t mean he was always destined for Naval service. Instead, once he reached high school, Howard began making a life for himself in Memphis, working hard to earn good grades and position himself for the working world, even though that sometimes meant he was ostracized by his peers around him. He learned not to care.
At 17, he moved into his own apartment, bringing his brother and girlfriend with him, working at a movie theater to make ends meet. It was then he began to consider enlisting in the Army, realizing that the stability of a military job could provide for his family in ways jobs in the civilian world around him could not. By chance, a Navy recruiter in his area took an interest in him first. Howard listened to what the recruiter had to say, and was headed to a United States Military Entrance Processing Station soon thereafter. He almost immediately became a standout Sailor. Howard enlisted as an E-1 -- the lowest rank in the military -- but worked his way to E-3 by the completion of basic training, based upon the strength of his performance at Recruit Training Command.
He headed to Virginia Beach, Virginia to complete the Navy’s “A” school for operations specialists, where again he excelled. He picked up E-4 on his first attempt, and was an E-5 before he’d even finished two years of his enlistment. It was while stationed aboard USS Vicksburg (CG 69) that things changed forever. At first, it just felt like heartburn. He tried to shake it off, until the pain became so bad that he was almost completely incapacitated by it. He could hardly stand, let alone work. Even so, he wasn’t expecting what came next. After an underway with Vicksburg, Howard walked into a medical facility for an exam. The doctors found a tumor near his spine. After surgery, Howard had to learn to walk again. Surgeons removed three vertebra and inserted a rod inserted in their place; nerve damage made completing even basic tasks difficult. Howard was moved to what is now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, to heal. But he wanted to do more than simply be a patient.
Howard began working in the hospital’s legal office, answering phones and filing paperwork. “I wasn’t doing much,” he says. That didn’t last long. In Bethesda, Howard learned how to work as a legal professional. Unable to study for his operations specialist exam without access to Vicksburg’s spaces, where secret material could be secured, he dove into life in the legal office -- work for which he discovered a natural aptitude. He ultimately decided to leave his job as an operations specialist to become a legalman, or LN. Sitting in her office in Coronado, California, Lt. Kristin Seewald thinks back to her experience with Howard. More than anything, it’s his reputation in the community that stands out to her. Before transferring to Naval Special Warfare Group 1, where she is a staff judge advocate, Seewald asked people close to her what they knew about the legalman she would be working with. As of June 2012, that happened to be Legalman First Class Aundra Howard.
When a co-worker described Howard’s work ethic and abilities, she said, “What he described was what I saw in a chief.” “LN1 Howard was a phenomenal Sailor, and a phenomenal legalman,” she said. “He was probably one of the best legalman I’ve been able to work with.” Howard’s journey from Bethesda to Coronado wasn’t a smooth one, however. Howard left Maryland, attended to legalman “A” school, and was subsequently assigned to USS Nimitz (CVN 68). Soon after, the cancer returned. By the time Howard arrived at NSWG-1, he had completed two intense surgeries and countless disappointments and setbacks. Those who know him say nothing -- not even the chemo therapy that doctors recommended after the second surgery failed to eliminate the cancer from Howard’s body -- seemed to be able to affect Howard’s optimism or work ethic.
“He was the consummate professional,” said Lt. Todd Hutchins, a staff judge advocate at NSWG-1. “Even while undergoing chemo therapy, he would come into work to get the job done.” Ultimately, the cancer proved too serious for Howard to continue his Naval service. He was medically retired on Aug. 28, 2015. Without the Navy, Howard says, he wonders where he would be. He was able to learn valuable trades, to provide for his family, and perhaps most importantly, receive medical treatment to which he might not otherwise have had access. “Ultimately, it saved my life,” he said. The Navy, in turn, benefitted from Howard’s service. “The special warfare community as well as the Navy legal community lost an incredible asset in LN1 Howard,” Hutchins said.
As a parting show of appreciation, the NSWG-1 Chief’s Mess rallied around Howard to bestow upon him the one honor he didn’t have time to accomplish on his own. On Aug. 26, two days before his medical retirement, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stephens affixed his signature to the document that would allow Howard to become an honorary chief. On the stage in the Special Boat Team maintenance facility, with an enormous American flag as backdrop, Howard stood rigidly straight as the NSWG-1 command master chief designated Howard an honorary chief petty officer. Howard smiled, his family surrounding him, flashes of cameras going off from all directions, chief selectees looking on. Soon thereafter, Allison, the master of ceremonies, provided Howard with a brief retirement ceremony. It was years sooner than Howard would have liked, but as he walked toward his peers standing at attention and away from life in a Navy uniform, his salute was as proud as it had ever been.