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MILITARY DEATHS

Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Merideth Howard, 52, Alameda; Killed in Blast

October 01, 2006|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Army reservist Merideth Howard made her husband promise not to bury her in the ground if she were killed while serving in Afghanistan.

So the man she married last year after learning that she would participate in Operation Enduring Freedom will celebrate her life by blasting her remains skyward in two fireworks displays more than a thousand miles apart.

"She loved fireworks and being near the water," said Hugh Hvolboll, who is part owner of a fireworks company and who will put on displays with his wife's ashes later this year off Corpus Christi, Texas, and San Francisco.

Howard, 52, was the oldest female casualty of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. An 18-year veteran of the Army Reserve, she was killed Sept. 8 when a car bomb exploded near the armored Humvee carrying Howard and 15 others in the capital city of Kabul. Another Army reservist also was killed.

A sergeant first class, Howard was assigned to the 364th Civil Affairs Brigade, helping to rebuild roads and water systems, and acting as a liaison between the Afghan people and the military.

Born in Corpus Christi in 1954, Howard, an only child, spent her childhood crabbing and fishing in sensitive ocean habitat at Laguna Madre, a channel along the Texas coast.

"For her 16th birthday, she wanted a fishing rod, and her parents bought it for her," said Hvolboll, 46. She also liked water skiing and duck hunting.

After graduating from King High School in 1973, she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in marine resource management from Texas A&M University.

"But she got seasick every time they went out on a survey," Hvolboll said, adding that she chose to work as a firefighter instead.

In 1978, she became the first female firefighter in the Bryan City Fire Department in Texas.

"She was one dynamic woman," said David White, her fire school instructor and now publisher of Industrial Fire World magazine in College Station, Texas.

"She was a good, dedicated, hard worker. She always did more than what was expected.... What she didn't have in strength, she made up for with determination."

After a colleague died while fighting an apartment fire, Howard decided her job was too dangerous and began a career as a fire protection specialist. In 1985, her work took her to Alameda, Calif., where she was employed by Industrial Risk Insurer in fire safety and investigations before starting her own consulting company, Fire Protection Solutions, in 2000.

She joined the Army Reserve when she was 34. "She was by far the oldest one in boot camp, but that didn't bother her," Hvolboll said. "She always had the fear of being a bag lady. She didn't want to get old and live on the street. She joined for the benefits."

Howard met Hvolboll through a mutual friend in 1991. Hvolboll was living in nearby Concord, working as an engineer for Lockheed Corp. and working holidays as a pyrotechnician for a fireworks company.

Loren Parkhurst, Hvolboll's friend and former roommate in Concord, recalled that Hvolboll bought Howard an M-16 rifle four months before she left for Afghanistan. "She practiced over and over again, dismantling and assembling that gun, until she could do it blindfolded," Parkhurst said.

When Hvolboll was laid off from Lockheed, he became a partner in Fireworks America. His wife's passion for fireworks was "more or less forced," Hvolboll said. "She wanted to see me on the holidays, so she helped me out." Howard's love of the ocean became his as well, as they enjoyed snorkeling in Hawaii, Mexico and Spain.

On Dec. 28, Howard and Hvolboll were married, a decision they came to after Howard found out she would be called to active duty. Four months later, on the day after Easter, Howard was sent to Afghanistan. "When she left, she told me to be careful," Hvolboll said tearfully.

They e-mailed each other three or four times a week and called occasionally. "She didn't tell me that she manned an M-240 machine gun while riding in the turret of the Humvee or that she had been shot at in other convoys, until recently. She didn't want me to worry," Hvolboll said.

Howard's service in Afghanistan wasn't supposed to involve guns. "But they had to defend themselves driving from one place to another," Hvolboll said.

As part of a civil affairs brigade, Howard worked alongside the Afghan people. In May, an Army film crew shot a segment on those efforts, showing Howard handing out hundreds of backpacks. "Most of the kids are in school, even if it's just a few hours a day," she said on the segment. "And that's what we're trying to do, is just help them out as much as we can."

Hvolboll plans to scatter part of his wife's ashes, along with those of her parents, over the Corpus Christi Bay in a fireworks barrage in November. The remaining half of Howard's ashes will be blasted out of a cannon in a 10-minute fireworks extravaganza over San Francisco Bay on Dec. 29, the day after their wedding anniversary.

In addition to her husband, Howard is survived by several cousins, including Melissa K. Lanier of Tyler, Texas.

cecilia.rasmussen@latimes .com

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