Kenai Marine earns top secret job

Posted: Sunday, December 21, 2003

The first time Travis Howell's mother, Deloma, saw her son on television, he was being saluted by the President of the United States.

"I think I was on the treadmill, and all the sudden, there he was," Deloma said of Travis' first appearance on CNN in 2002.

She said she taped the brief clip of news footage for her husband, Don, to view later.

"It was great," she said.

Since then, Travis' televised appearances with world leaders have become a run-of-the-mill occurrence. That's because Howell, a 27-year-old who graduated from Kenai Central High School in 1996, is a U.S. Marine stationed at Quantico, Va. as a member of an elite group of troops known as the Marine Helicopter Squadron, or HMX-1.

The "Nighthawks," as they're affectionately known, are responsible for flying and maintaining helicopters for the executive branch of government shuttling the president, vice president and visiting heads of state wherever they need to go.

As part of the crew, it's often been Howell's assignment to stand outside the chopper and salute the president as he boards and exits Marine One hence all the television appearances. He's got pictures of himself with the likes of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair on the south lawn of the White House.

During a Christmas visit to Kenai earlier this month, Howell and his family son, Sarge; sister, Leah; wife, Jennifer and his parents sat down to talk about Travis' unique job. Although he no longer flies around with the president crews on that detail are rotated out after one year Travis said he had a blast spending time around the leader of the free world.

"He's just a super nice guy," Howell said of Bush. "He's very sociable and friendly."

As a flight mechanic, Staff Sgt. Howell travels with the choppers wherever they go, performing maintenance on the Sikorsky VH-3D Sea King and VH-60N Blackhawk helicopters used to shuttle leaders around the country and the world.

Although his job is highly classified "we can't even go to where he works," said Jennifer there are a few details of his job that he is allowed to discuss.

"It gets old, all the cleaning," Howell said.

After each flight, the crew must spend six hours cleaning and maintaining the aircrafts for the next trip. That can be a bit tedious, Howell said. But it's not like the job doesn't have its rewards. When he was working on the president's helicopter, Howell said he'd often spruce it up extra-special when he knew the first lady would be aboard, something Mrs. Bush always appreciated.

"She'll always come up and tell you 'thank you' and how nice the aircraft smells," he said.

Howell even had a special collection of air fresheners he used when the First Lady would come aboard.

"She always liked that," he said.

The job also has its drawbacks. The Nighthawks can be called to work at a moment's notice, and Howell said he's away from home as much as 250 days out of the year. Jennifer said that can be hard, especially since the couple has three young kids Grayson McCaughey, 8; Travis, 2; and Sarge, 15 months, at home.

However, having a father who is on television from time to time can help ease the burden for the boys, Jennifer said.

"It's great for our boys," she said. "The pictures and things will be really neat for them when they get older."

There are other perks, as well. Travis said his family gets Christmas cards from the Bushes, as well as an annual invite to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.

Although he's enjoyed his time in the Marines, Travis said it's likely he'll settle down back home in Alaska when his time with the Nighthawks is done. He'd like to pursue a career in law enforcement, though he said it's probably more likely he'll go to work in the oil fields with his father.

After six years in the Marine Corps, Travis said he wouldn't trade his experience for anything. He said he's learned a lot from traveling the world with the planet's most powerful people. But as a top-secret member of the president's inner circle, one lesson stands out the most when asked for any details about the nation's top man.

"I've learned to keep my mouth shut when people ask me that question," he said.

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