Chris Howell is the first Physician Assistant in the Kentucky Army National Guard to achieve the rank of Colonel

Brig. Gen. Rob Larkin promotes Col. Chris Howell during a ceremony at Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort, Ky., September 2020. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Lt. Col. Varinka Ensminger)

By Spc. Jesse Elbouab, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

LEXINGTON, Ky. — When Col. Chris Howell was promoted to the rank of colonel, his career took a historical turn. He became the first-ever Physician Assistant (PA) to achieve the standing within the Kentucky Army National Guard.

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As a civilian, Howell is a PA in the Department of Dermatology at the VA Medical Center in Lexington. He mentioned that the Lexington VAMC is a wonderful place to work and feels honored to treat Veterans.

In the Guard, the Hodgenville native serves as the Deputy Commander of Clinical Operations for the Kentucky Army National Guard’s Medical Detachment (MED DET) in Frankfort.

He enlisted in 1985 to pursue a career in law enforcement with the active-duty Air Force. While stationed in England, Howell took an emergency medical technician (EMT) course and soon realized his heart was no longer in criminal justice but in medicine.

“As soon as I started studying medicine, anatomy, and physiology, I knew my long-term career would not be in law enforcement,” said Howell. “It became clear that my passion was going to be something different from what I originally thought.”

Howell left active duty in 1990 and transitioned to the Air National Guard. He continued to serve there while pursuing his bachelor’s and PA degree at the University of Kentucky, where he graduated in 1998.

In 1999, after reaching his educational goals, they commissioned Howell as a second lieutenant in the Kentucky Army National Guard.

Lt. Col. Chris Howell, 2014. In September 2020, Howell became the Kentucky Army National Guard’s first physician assistant to reach the rank of colonel. (courtesy photo)

Since his commission, he has served within the Army and Air National Guard and feels fortunate to have done so.

“It’s military medicine,” said Howell, passionately. “It makes no difference what uniform you wear or what you do in the military. If you’re sick, I’m going to take care of you. If you have a laceration, I’m going to sew it up the same, no matter what uniform you wear. I am blessed to have served in both branches.”

Howell stated the military has its way of bringing you out of your comfort zone.

“You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he said. “The military is a prime location for one to pursue his or her dreams while being a part of something bigger than oneself.”

The MED DET oversees the Periodic Health Assessments (PHA) for every Soldier in the Kentucky Army National Guard. The unit also serves the commonwealth in times of need and deploys overseas to assist with U.S. military operations worldwide.

“Our mission is to efficiently and effectively make sure more than 5,000 Soldiers in the Kentucky Army National Guard are medically ready to deploy if called upon,” said Howell.

The task above is not one Howell takes lightly. The MED DET team is always reevaluating and improving the PHA process while ensuring Soldiers have the medical care they need, both physically and mentally. He states the PHA process is vital to the Guard’s mission. It identifies medical and dental issues in the early stages so they can be addressed and hopefully resolved before a mission or deployment.

He believes that one of his primary responsibilities at this stage in his career is to mentor, educate, and inspire the next generation of medical professionals and leaders throughout the ranks. He has been impressed with the caliber and intelligence of the troops within the Kentucky Guard’s MED DET. “It is easy for a team to succeed in any endeavor when you have troops like those assigned to this great unit,” he said.

Col. Chris Howell provides medical aid to a young girl while on a volunteer mission to Ecuador with a non-profit organization, August 2002. (courtesy photo)

“For a successful career and a happy life, I believe it’s imperative to have a few important attributes,” Howell said. “One, you have to be driven to overcome obstacles. Two, you need to have a desire to serve others and pursue excellence. Three, you need the determination to not give up in the face of failure. And four, have the self-discipline to stay the course. Of all these traits, I believe self-disciple is the most important. Out of maintaining self-discipline comes your true calling in life and, ultimately, where you can positively impact the lives of others. Self-discipline is the foundation of all success.”

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