The military has its heroes. They are the names which are repeated over the years that did the deeds which are spoken in hallowed terms. Audie Murphy’s biography even states that he is the most highly decorated Soldier in American history. Except that he is not. That spot goes to Colonel Robert Howard, a man whose deeds were made even more remarkable through the humbleness that he exhibited. He did not author any books, and no movies were made where he starred as himself. Instead, Robert Howard won the hearts of his comrades through his actions and love for his fellow soldier.
Attached to MACV-SOG during his five tours in Vietnam, Howard was recommended on three different occasions for the Medal of Honor. Due to the sensitive and classified nature of his operations, two of the recommendations were downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest medal for valor. Wounded 14 times in his 54 months of combat duty, he received eight purple hearts.
Robert Howard received the Medal of Honor for bravery, when as a Sergeant First Class, he operated as a Platoon Sergeant for an American and Vietnamese Platoon on a rescue mission for a missing Soldier. While on patrol, the platoon was ambushed by a two company force resulting in most of the platoon soldiers being wounded, including Howard. As he regained consciousness, he saw the North Vietnamese soldiers finishing off his platoon with flamethrowers. Throwing his grenade and killing the soldier with the flamethrower, Howard pulled his wounded Platoon Leader to safety; but not before being injured yet again when an enemy bullet detonated the ammunition pouch of the lieutenant, wounding Howard several more times. At this point, with hands mangled, and bleeding profusely from head injuries, he again moved to protect the lieutenant, pulling him and the survivors to a defensive position where they continued to fight the advancing enemy.
Running out of ammunition, Howard did the unthinkable and called for fire on his own position. The explosions were so close that it threw their bodies into the air, but not one of the friendly force was injured. The enemy was pushed back just enough to allow rescue helicopters to come in and pick up the beleaguered force without another shot being fired. Generally, the story would end here, except Howard then went AWOL from the hospital and made his way back to his men so he could recover with his brothers in arms.
When he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Nixon, it did not make national news. It was not a popular war, and therefore, its heroes were ignored. His wife attended the awards ceremony in the White House, but Howard had not spoken to her about many of his experiences. She was surprised to find him receiving eight Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, and the Medal of Honor. Humility defined him.
After he retired at the age of 53 as a Colonel, he went to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs, helping to process the claims of the very Soldiers he was so proud to serve with. During his last few years, he visited with service members and showed his support publically and personally with those who would listen.
On December 23, 2009, Robert Howard passed away from pancreatic cancer – it was the only battle he could not win. For those who had an opportunity to meet with this man, the experience was powerful and inspiring. He gave so much for his brothers in arms, and his life was a life of dedication and service.
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