Veteran, educator Fletcher-Howell dies at 70


  • Gordon Fletcher-Howell, a Vietnam War veteran and longtime educator with the Veterans Education Project, in 2014. JESSICA JIMISON

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTOGordon Fletcher-Howell is shown in a 1993 photo.

  • Gordon Fletcher-Howell is shown in a 1993 photo. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Friday, July 27, 2018

AMHERST — Gordon Fletcher-Howell, a Vietnam War veteran and longtime educator with the Veterans Education Project, has died at the age of 70.

Fletcher-Howell was a radio operator in the Marines who did two tours during the Vietnam War. His experience in the war — the atrocities he witnessed — stayed with him his whole life; it eventually led him to share his story, and the truth of what war is really like, with young people across the region as a member of the Veterans Education Project, or VEP.

Fletcher-Howell died after a yearslong battle with semantic dementia, during which he had lost the ability to communicate outwardly his thoughts. In the spring of 2017 he moved into the Soldiers’ Home health care facility in Holyoke. He was surrounded by family when he passed away Monday at 12:30 p.m.

From local schoolkids to at-risk youth, including incarcerated teens, Fletcher-Howell’s work impacted many young people across the Pioneer Valley.

“He was just telling it like it was, and giving kids an insight and understanding that they don’t get out of textbooks, or when they see advertisements for the military on TV or talk to recruiters,” said Rob Wilson, who was previously the VEP’s executive director. “It was really reality-based.”

Jessica Jimison, Fletcher-Howell’s eldest daughter, said her father went off to war as a gung-ho enlistee who quickly changed his mind about the war after his first tour. Jimison said her father realized that if he were Vietnamese, he would have fought with the Viet Cong against the American “bullies” invading villages and killing people.

“He realized ‘I would hate myself, I would want to kill myself if I was Vietnamese,’” Jimison said. Her father, she said, came to an understanding of racism and of the horrors of what the United States was doing. “And really, that war sucked.”

Upon returning home, having survived the Tet Offensive in 1968, Fletcher-Howell marched against the war as part of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But he was not completely anti-war, Jimison said — rather “pro-critical thinking and pro-diplomacy.”

“My feelings about the war are complex,” Fletcher-Howell told the Gazette in November 1992. “Someone asked me recently, did you see any action? ... I thought the question was crass … I’m not a hard-core battle-scarred vet. The biggest lesson I learned was that war is an institution that the world needs to outgrow.”

‘Mental armor’

Fletcher-Howell’s grasp on his own war experience — and his ability to relay that message as an educator — wasn’t something that came to him right away. It was only after around two decades after he returned from Vietnam in 1969 that he began to really deal with his war trauma.

To protect himself from his experiences and the anguish they caused, Fletcher-Howell had put up what he called his “mental armor.” That emotional barrier protected him from the pain, fear and grief the war left him with, but also prevented him from having real relationships with his wife and children, Jimison said.

It wasn’t until the Gulf War, Jimison said, that he was able to put a name to that condition: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“He was listening to, I think it was NPR … and they had every six minutes war updates,” she said. “It was ridiculous, he couldn’t be separated from the continuous updates and information about what was going on in Iraq.”

Jimison said that when she was growing up, her father could be a “tyrant” in the household, and that it wasn’t until after he began dealing with his trauma that he evolved into the gentle and loving person she later knew.

“He fully, truly learned that his PTSD, while it was protecting him from the pain of the moral struggle and all what war brought him, it was truly shielding him from the connection (with his family),” Jimison said. Once he was able to begin shedding that armor, her father placed his focus on family, she said. “He really pushed for my sister and I and our families to have good communication, to get therapy when needed, to be honest with one another.”

Wilson, the former VEP director, said that evolution was evident in his teaching as well.

“He really hadn’t figured out the psychological impact of the war, and he gradually came to realize that as he spoke over the years,” he said. “He really evolved as a speaker, and he figured it out, and he developed a style of communicating to kids that really encouraged them to understand and ask questions.”

Trauma counseling

That evolution, those close to Fletcher-Howell said, allowed him in his work with the VEP to connect with those most in need: veterans coming back from war, ostracized students, incarcerated youth, victims of street violence, gang members.

Gretchen Werle, a health technology teacher at Franklin County Technical School, first worked with Fletcher-Howell in 1998. It was then, when she was a nurse at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, that 15-year-old student Matthew Santoni stabbed to death his classmate, 16-year-old Jeffrey Lamothe, in downtown Northampton after being bullied in school.

“A bunch of other students were with them and witnessed it, so it was very traumatic,” Werle said. She and guidance counselors worked to help those who witnessed the event work through that trauma, and eventually brought in Fletcher-Howell and fellow VEP member Paul Lyons to work with the group.

“What we set up was a boys’ group that met weekly, I think,” she said. “It was pretty amazing, the way that Paul was kind of the counselor guy and Gordon used the VEP storytelling model to tell his experience, and create a space where the boys could talk about their experiences.”

Lyons told the Gazette that Fletcher-Howell wasn’t always an easy person to be around; he had a strict set of principles, Lyons said, and refused to stray from them.

“But boy, it made everybody better, and made everybody debate very serious issues,” Lyons said. “He was really out with his struggles, and it meant so much for the kids we worked with to hear from him... he was the real deal.”

When Werle moved on to teach health education at Gateway Regional Middle School, she began inviting Fletcher-Howell to teach violence prevention in the eighth grade. All these years later, Werle still has the responses that her students wrote after those presentations.

“He mistreated his wife and children because in the war he was brainwashed to be violent, and so it stayed with him during his years of parenting,” one student wrote. “He healed from the mental armor by recognizing he had it.”

Jimison described her father as a complex and dynamic man, whom many loved and many will miss. She said she and her sister talked about what they will miss most about their father, and said it was his presence when there was a crisis on hand.

“When there was a moral question on the table and it was hard to decipher what is the right thing to do now, Dad was the one who would stay up late with you and talk it out,” Jimison said. “He was the rock when you really really needed something. That is what we missed, and we’ve already been missing that for a few years.”

Fletcher-Howell is survived by his wife, Melanie, and his two daughters, 43-year-old Jimison and 41-year-old Whitney Vaughan.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.