NEW LONDON, Conn. — Robert Howard, Jr., was just 4 years old in 1969 when his father, a former star athlete at Norwich Free Academy, was killed in action in Vietnam.
Young Robert grew up with a passion for learning about his father. He asked his father's seven older siblings about their brother. Whenever he returned to the Norwich area, he would hear: "Are you Bobby Howard's boy?"
On Nov. 11, 2000, the city of Norwich dedicated the Norwich Vietnam Memorial and honored 12 soldiers who were killed in Vietnam.
"Of all the names on the Norwich memorial, my father was the only one who had a child," said Howard, who will turn 50 in October. "That's what makes my experience so unique, so different in this area. But it's not unique."
Howard joined and became active with the Sons and Daughters In Touch, which was formed to "locate, unite and support America's Gold Star Children, who lost their fathers in the Vietnam War." With SDIT he traveled to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1991 and 1992, when SDIT celebrated its first national Father's Day. He established lifetime friendships with other sons and daughters of soldiers who died in Vietnam.
In March 2003, SDIT traveled to Vietnam to visit some of the very sites where their fathers had fought and died.
Last week Howard received a surprise invitation from the White House to be one of SDIT's dozen representatives at the national Memorial Day ceremonies in Washington, D.C.
"My reaction was, 'Wow!'" Howard said.
The group will attend the Memorial Day concert at the U.S. Capitol Sunday evening, and on Monday will have breakfast at the White House with President Barack Obama. Following that, Howard and two other members of the group will have the honor of laying the memorial wreath at the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Howard said, "The blessings I've received for him paying the ultimate sacrifice still don't measure up in my eyes, but it's ... wow."
The elder Howard graduated from NFA in 1964 and was drafted into the Army's 101st Airborne Division on Feb. 27, 1968. He arrived in Vietnam on Dec. 18, 1968, and upon his death on June 10, 1969, he was promoted posthumously to Sergeant E-5.
A month later, young Robert II received a letter from Maj. William H. Zierdt III telling the boy about his father's death. Robert's mother, now Roberta Vincent, said Zierdt had hoped that one day Howard's son would ask how and why his father died.
"I know that the sense of loss over your father's death is very great to you, but it is also shared by each member of our troop who will always remember him as a happy and wonderful man," the letter said. "I hope that is the way you will remember him also."
Howard later had an emotional meeting with Zierdt in 2004 at the 1st Annual 101st Airborne Convention in San Antonio, Texas.
Howard attended St. Bernard High School and played multiple sports. He said he tried to emulate his father, a star football player, but suffered a debilitating shoulder injury. He graduated from St. Bernard in 1983 and attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., for two years before returning to Connecticut.
He has worked for the cellphone company Metro PCS for the past 14 years and now lives in Hartford. He and his wife, Kenya Howard, have three sons.
Howard said he struggled with his father's death and had a bout with substance abuse. He credited his mother and stepfather, John Vincent, for supporting him through difficult times. His mother also made sure the family retained ties with the Howard family so Robert could learn about his father.
"My mother has given me a good foundation," Howard said. "My stepfather has been phenomenal. He's always been there. He never treated me any different than being his son. Sometimes when things like that happen, families kind of separate from one another. My mother always kept us together."
In June, the elder Howard's NFA Class of 1964 will celebrate its 50th anniversary and will march into graduation ceremonies as per tradition with this year's graduates on June 20. Howard has been invited to join them to represent his dad.
"That will be really, really nice," Howard said. "It'll be nice to meet some of the people who knew him."