Robert L. Howard was a dedicated US Army Special Forces soldier who received 14 wounds during his 54 months in Vietnam. His service afforded him the title of the most decorated soldier of the war, as well as the most decorated Green Beret, with him having been presented with eight Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and four Bronze Stars, among other commendations.
He was also awarded the Medal of Honor, for which he was nominated three times.
Robert Howard and the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne)
Robert Howard was born in Opelika, Alabama in 1939 and enlisted in the US Army in 1956. His first deployment was in 1965, with the 101st Airborne Division. He’d completed a few tours in Vietnam before attending Special Forces training, returning to Vietnam in 1967 as a sergeant first class with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
It was during his time serving in Vietnam that Howard would be recommended for the Medal of Honor – not once, but on three separate occasions. He was only awarded it once. It’s believed the reason he wasn’t given it all three times had to do with his assignment as a staff sergeant with the top secret Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). The US military didn’t want to draw attention to his work on classified missions.
Presented with the Distinguished Service Cross
Robert Howard was an adviser to a reconnaissance patrol that encountered an enemy bunker complex near the Laotian border on November 27, 1967. Both sides quickly engaged in a fire fight. Howard moved himself right next to a bunker, where he was held due to enemy machine gun fire.
Through the gunfire, Howard was able to throw a grenade into an opening of one of the bunkers, killing everyone inside. He then grabbed an anti-tank weapon and “stood up amid the withering hail of bullets, fired his weapon, and completely demolished the position.” This enabled him and the rest of the team to be extracted by a rescue helicopter.
For his efforts during this confrontation, Howard was recommended for the Medal of Honor. Instead, he was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross.
Heroics earned Robert Howard a Silver Star
In November 1968, Robert Howard accompanied a FOB-2 Hatchet Platoon to Laos. After four days, the group was ambushed by enemy troops, who were aided by a Soviet PT-76 amphibious light tank. Risking his life, Howard crept through the intense fire and managed to take out the armored vehicle with an anti-tank rocket.
A Medevac helicopter was on its way to help the ambushed platoon when it was shot down by Vietnamese anti-aircraft weapons. Although Howard was wounded, he charged his way through 300 yards of enemy fire to guide the two pilots and wounded door gunner to safety. He received additional wounds during this rescue.
The platoon was unable to be extracted until the following day, due to the Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire, which Howard was able to put a stop to when he silenced their 37 mm anti-aircraft gun. The Green Beret was, again, recommended for the Medal of Honor, but was instead awarded a Silver Star.
Third time’s the charm – Robert Howard receives his Medal of Honor
In December 1968, Robert Howard joined a rescue team to bring back Special Forces Sgt. Robert F. Scherdin. Scherdin was part of a 10-man team that was dropped at the intersection of Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam. The team had split into two separate groups, and both were attacked by the enemy. Scherdin became severely wounded and was left behind when the patrol was forced to withdraw.
The next morning, Lt. James Jerson sent his Special Forces commando platoon, which included Howard, and a group of Montagnards tribesmen to rescue Scherdin. On the way, Jerson and Howard were struck by a remotely detonated mine, seriously injuring them both, and the rest of the platoon came under attack by the enemy.
Despite being wounded in the legs and hand, Howard quickly moved through the fire to reach Jenson and drag him to safety. A helicopter rescued the platoon after Howard had successfully brought Jenson to safety. Unfortunately, Jenson later died of his wounds. Scherdin wasn’t located and was declared missing in action.
Howard’s courage and strength earned him another recommendation for the Medal of Honor, which was presented to him for having “crawled from position to position, administering first aid to the wounded, giving encouragement to the defenders and directing their fire on the encircling enemy.” President Richard Nixon awarded him the medal on March 2, 1971.
Robert Howard’s life following the Vietnam War
Robert Howard spent a total of four and a half years fighting in Vietnam. He served with the US Army for 36 years, 33 of which were with airborne status. Howard retired as a full colonel in 1992, but continued to work with other veterans in some form. He even visited American troops who were stationed in Iraq.
Howard became the most decorated Green Beret and soldier since World War II. Among the aforementioned decorations, he was also awarded seven Army Commendation Medals, three Air Medals, the Defense Superior Service Medal, three Meritorious Service Medals, the Joint Service Commendation and four Legions of Merit.
The Special Forces veteran died of pancreatic cancer on December 23, 2009 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.