ABOUT SGT. HOWARD
Sgt. Erik C. Howard is a 32-year-old soldier with the Alabama Army National Guard's 900th Component Repair Company, now serving at Forward Operating Base Dehdadi II in Afghanistan. Howard is a Red Bank High School and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate. He has written dispatches for the Chattanooga Times Free Press about his deployment experience.
A series of rapid-fire emails Friday from a local Army sergeant in Afghanistan has his friends worried about his safety among his comrades.
Sgt. Erik C. Howard, 32, claims in email exchanges to multiple friends that he has received death threats from fellow U.S. soldiers because he witnessed unspecified acts by other soldiers on a convoy operation.
He does not detail the acts in his emails, but outlines threats, intimidation and an Army investigation into actions by his fellow troops.
George Wright, an Army public affairs specialist, said Friday the office first learned of Howard's allegations when contacted by the Times Free Press.
Wright said that he had contacted the International Security Assistance Force Public Affairs Office, whose personnel said they would request the U.S. military command in Afghanistan to look into Howard's allegations.
One of Howard's former teachers, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor of religion Bill Harmon, contacted the office of Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., regarding Howard's fears.
"We have been in contact with Dr. Harmon and are working to connect all of the relevant players in this situation," Laura Herzog, spokeswoman for Corker, told the Times Free Press.
Harmon said he got to know Howard well as a student and kept in touch with the sergeant after graduation.
"I take it seriously," he said. "Erik is a tough guy, nothing rattles him, nothing bothers him. I would be surprised if he just freaked out."
Excerpts from Howard's recent emails regarding his treatment by fellow soldiers:
"They have me locked in my tent right now. I was on a convoy where soldiers didn't do good things and I witnessed it though I never would have said anything...they have made me look like a snitch. The entire unit has turned on me and I haven't done the slightest thing but voice my opinion. PLEASE I AM DESPERATE."
"Guys I assure you this is no joke...I am in honest fear for my life here. Bullying, harassing, death threats. Maybe it is all for show, maybe it is all for paranoia building. MAYBE IT ISN'T."
"Think about the heat, testosterone, irrational mob psychology and semi-automatic weapons in everyone's hands. You do the morbid math..."
Only scant details can be gleaned from Howard's emails describing what may have happened among soldiers of Howard's unit, the Alabama Army National Guard's 900th Component Repair Company.
Howard's emails claim that, in recent days, he's been confined to his tent by commanders and had fellow soldiers threaten to kill him in retaliation for his cooperation in an Army investigation.
He has signed sworn affidavits for an Army captain conducting the investigation and been effectively ostracized by his unit, the emails claim.
A Times Free Press editor corresponded briefly with Howard via email, confirming that Howard sent the emails and he wanted media attention to what he has characterized as a life-threatening situation.
Last fall, Howard wrote dispatches for the Times Free Press about the unit's deployment.
Howard did not respond immediately to questions from the Times Free Press on Friday. The time difference between Chattanooga and Afghanistan is eight and a half hours.
Friends at home are not taking the messages lightly.
James A. Mendoza met Howard in 1996 in San Antonio after Mendoza returned to school following eight years in the Army and service in Operation Desert Storm.
Howard was an 18-year-old college freshman, and Mendoza said they have similar, matter-of-fact personalities.
Regarding the emails, Mendoza said in a phone interview Friday from Austin, Texas, that he doesn't think Howard would embellish or overstate something.
Mendoza also contacted U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, R-Texas, but said he had not heard from Doggett's office by Friday afternoon.
It didn't surprise Mendoza that Howard would speak out if he witnessed something improper.
"I think the people he's probably coming in contact with are not accustomed to facing hard facts," he said. "[Howard's] going to do the right thing and knows how to take his punch in the mouth."