The most courageous heroes often walk among us unseen. Sadly, many no longer grace us with their presence. On 3 August 1967, my fraternity brother and friend, First Lieutenant Howard Jon Schnabolk, a medical evacuation helicopter pilot, was shot down and killed in Vietnam. You would never have pointed to Howie as a hero. Yet an officer I met who had flown with him called Howie “the bravest man I ever knew.” There’s a lesson here.
Howie grew up in Sea Bright, New Jersey on the Jersey Shore and was a year ahead of me at Alfred University, a small private school in western New York State. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Howie didn’t fit the mold of a future hero. He never played intramural football, basketball or softball as I did, let alone varsity sports, although he did cheer on our Tau Delta Phi teams. He spent much time and effort as the lighting designer for student plays. I remember. I acted in them.
Neither glum nor withdrawn—he flashed a ready smile—Howie just seemed more mature than the rest of us. He was an Eagle Scout. He took flying lessons. He attended Masons meetings. What college kid does that? It was Howie who put up paneling in our fraternity house living room—and who served as president for two years.
Howie also took ROTC. After graduating in 1965, he deferred Army service to attend Yale Drama School as a lighting design student—no mean feat. But the program didn’t satisfy him. He entered active service as a second lieutenant in the Medical Service Corps and earned his wings as a helicopter pilot at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Vietnam followed.
I graduated in 1966. Having passed up the final two years of ROTC—the first two were required of all male students—I enlisted in the Army and attended Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I was commissioned in May 1967 but in the Adjutant General’s Corp because my eyes were so bad an Army optometrist in basic training told me I shouldn’t be there. I was assigned to Fort Sam Houston, Medical Services Corp headquarters, and shared an apartment off post. We agreed that when he returned to Fort Sam, he’d move in with me.
Howie and I had been writing while I was in OCS and after I got to Fort Sam. His letters were brutally honest. He was flying in support of the 101st Airborne, for whom I have great respect. But, he wrote, they were getting the shit kicked out of them. His words. Howie’s job was to pick up the pieces—to fly into a battle zone and take out the wounded and dead. To save lives, not take them. Once, he was given a new “bulletproof” flight helmet. An enemy round went through it, missing his head by an inch or two. Howie kept flying. Then his luck ran out. His aircraft was hit, and he purposely crashed it on its side, surrendering his life to enable the wounded he carried to live, which they did.
I will say Kaddish for Howie tonight, and it will hurt. I have done so for years, since I don’t know if his parents are still alive or if he has any siblings to remember him. I do know this: In an era in which the call to patriotism and duty are so often bellowed with macho pretension, Howie’s quiet courage will be remembered. Zecher hatzaddik l’vrachah—may the member of the righteous be for a blessing.
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