Colonel Robert L. Howard

Most Decorated American Veteran Vietnam War Hero

By Allan Jamail

March 27, 2024 — The North Channel Star recognizes 1st Lt. Robert L. Howard of the 5th Regiment Special Forces Group Airborne, in the 1st Special Forces serving in the Vietnam War. Contributions to this story came from hours of research from numerous sources.

From The American Presidency Project, Proclamation 10353—Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War, March 28, 2022:

“On March 29th the National Vietnam War Veterans Day, we honor all those who bravely served in the Vietnam War and who sacrificed, as did their families and caregivers, on behalf of our Nation…

“In 2012, our Nation launched a 13-year long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War to ensure that every veteran, family, caregiver, and survivor impacted by the difficult years in Vietnam feels our Nation’s gratitude for their sacrifice. Every service member of the Vietnam generation should know that their sacrifices mattered and that their service made a difference. The names etched in The Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial remind us of our loved ones who gave their all and never came home.

To the families, caregivers, and survivors of the more than 58,000 service members whose names are memorialized in the black granite, we pledge to never forget the eternal sacrifice of your loved ones and what you have sacrificed for the nation. “To the families of the over 1,500 service members who remain missing and unaccounted for, know that our Nation’s efforts to bring them home will never stop…

“And to each of the 6 million Vietnam War era veterans who are with us today, we honor your service and all that you have done for our Nation.”

Robert Lewis Howard was the most highly decorated officer of Vietnam United States Army Special Forces and Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War. He was wounded 14 times over 54 months of combat, was awarded the Medal of Honor, eight Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, and four Bronze Stars.

Howard was nominated for the Medal of Honor three times over a 13-month period but received lesser medals for the first two nominations, which were for actions performed in Cambodia where the U.S. was fighting covertly. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on December 30, 1968, his third nomination.

He retired from the United States Army after 36 years of service as a full colonel. He was one of the most decorated soldiers in the Vietnam War and was “said to be the most decorated service member in the history of the United States.” Howard died as a result of pancreatic cancer, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on February 22, 2010.

Howard enlisted in the United States Army in 1956 at Montgomery, Alabama and retired as colonel, Army Special Forces, in 1992. His service in Vietnam included assignments with 1/327th Airborne Infantry, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, 5th Special Forces Group and MACV-SOG. As a staff sergeant of the highly classified Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), Howard was recommended for the Medal of Honor on three occasions for three individual actions during thirteen months spanning 1967–1968. The first two nominations were downgraded to a Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross due to the covert and top secret nature of the operations in which he participated.

As a sergeant first class of the SOG, he risked his life during a rescue mission in Cambodia on December 30, 1968, while second in command of a platoon-sized Hatchet Force that was searching for missing American soldier Robert Scherdin for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He learned of the award over a two-way radio while under enemy fire, immediately after being wounded, resulting in one of his eight Purple Hearts. For his distinguished service, Howard received a direct appointment from Master Sergeant to First Lieutenant in December 1969.

Howard graduated from Ranger School class 7–73 in May 1973 and served with the 2nd Ranger Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington as company commander. From 1977 to 1978 he served as Mountain Ranger Training instructor. He later served as officer-in-charge of Special Forces training at Camp Mackall, near Ft. Bragg, N.C., and later, commanding the Mountain Ranger Training Camp at Dahlonega, Georgia. He graduated from the National War College, Class 1987–1988. He received two master’s degrees during his Army career which spanned 1956 to 1992. Howard retired as a colonel in 1992.

He was one of the most decorated soldiers in the Vietnam War. NBC News said that Howard may have been the most highly decorated American soldier of the modern era, while KWTX-TV states that he was “said to be the most decorated service member in the history of the United States.” John Plaster in his 1998 book SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam states that Howard “remains to this day the most highly decorated American soldier.”

After he retired in 1992 his residence was in Texas and he spent much of his free time working with veterans until the time of his death. He also took periodic trips to Iraq to visit active duty troops.

He died of pancreatic cancer at a hospital in Waco, Texas, on December 23, 2009. He was survived by four children and five grandchildren. His funeral was in Arlington National Cemetery on February 22, 2010.

In 2014, Howard was announced as the recipient of United States Special Operations Command’s Bull Simons award for his “lifetime achievements in Special Operations.”

In April 2017 a building at the Rowe Training Facility on Camp Mackall was named Howard Hall in his honor.

Howard’s Medal of Honor citation:

The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to FIRST LIEUTENANT ROBERT L. HOWARD, UNITED STATES ARMY.

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. 1st Lt. Howard (then SFC.), distinguished himself while serving as platoon sergeant of an American-Vietnamese platoon which was on a mission to rescue a missing American soldier in enemy controlled territory in the Republic of Vietnam.

The platoon had left its helicopter landing zone and was moving out on its mission when it was attacked by an estimated 2-company force. During the initial engagement, 1st Lt. Howard was wounded and his weapon destroyed by a grenade explosion. 1st Lt. Howard saw his platoon leader had been wounded seriously and was exposed to fire. Although unable to walk, and weaponless, 1st Lt. Howard unhesitatingly crawled through a hail of fire to retrieve his wounded leader.

As 1st Lt. Howard was administering first aid and removing the officer’s equipment, an enemy bullet struck 1 of the ammunition pouches on the lieutenant’s belt, detonating several magazines of ammunition. 1st Lt. Howard momentarily sought cover and then realizing that he must rejoin the platoon, which had been disorganized by the enemy attack, he again began dragging the seriously wounded officer toward the platoon area. Through his outstanding example of indomitable courage and bravery, 1st Lt. Howard was able to rally the platoon into an organized defense force. With complete disregard for his safety, 1st Lt. Howard crawled from position to position, administering first aid to the wounded, giving encouragement to the defenders and directing their fire on the encircling enemy.

For 312 hours 1st Lt. Howard’s small force and supporting aircraft successfully repulsed enemy attacks and finally were in sufficient control to permit the landing of rescue helicopters. 1st Lt. Howard personally supervised the loading of his men and did not leave the bullet-swept landing zone until all were aboard safely. 1st Lt. Howard’s gallantry in action, his complete devotion to the welfare of his men at the risk of his life were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

General Orders: Department of the Army, General Orders No. 16 (March 24, 1971)

Action Date: December 30, 1968 Service: Army, Regiment: 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) Division: 1st Special Forces

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