Robert L. Howard, 70

Medal of Honor recipient Col. Robert L. Howard dies at 70

Col. Robert L. Howard was among the Vietnam War's most highly decorated servicemen.
Col. Robert L. Howard was among the Vietnam War's most highly decorated servicemen. (Congressional Medal Of Honor Society)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Robert L. Howard, 70, one of the Vietnam War's most highly decorated servicemen who received the Medal of Honor for leading fellow soldiers out of an ambush and fending off more than 250 troops during a two-day siege deep in enemy territory, died Dec. 23 of pancreatic cancer at a hospice in Waco, Tex. He had been living in the San Antonio area since retiring from the Army in 1992 at the rank of colonel.

In addition to the Medal of Honor -- the military's highest award for valor -- Col. Howard received two awards of the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Defense Superior Service Medal, four awards of the Legion of Merit, four Bronze Star Medals and eight Purple Hearts.

Col. Howard, an Army Green Beret, served five tours in Vietnam. During one 13-month period, he was nominated for the Medal of Honor for three separate acts of heroism.

In December 1968, then-Sgt. 1st Class Howard was part of a platoon tasked with going into North Vietnam in search of a fellow Green Beret whose rescue beacon reported him missing in action. While leading the patrol, Sgt. Howard and his lieutenant were blown back by an anti-personnel mine that signaled a 250-man ambush on their platoon. The blast knocked Sgt. Howard unconscious, and the shrapnel wounded his hands and destroyed his rifle.

When he came to, Sgt. Howard smelled the stench of burning flesh as a North Vietnamese soldier was using a flamethrower to torch the bodies of the American and South Vietnamese casualties, as Peter Collier wrote in "Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty."

As Collier described it, Sgt. Howard lobbed a grenade in the direction of the North Vietnamese soldier and made his way toward his lieutenant, who had been badly injured in the melee.

While he was administering aid to the wounded officer, a bullet struck Sgt. Howard's ammunition pouch, detonating several magazines and knocking him back. After regaining his composure, the badly injured sergeant moved back to the lieutenant and began dragging him toward the remaining Special Forces soldiers, shooting several North Vietnamese troops along the way.

Sgt. Howard took charge of the battered platoon and helped organize the overpowered and outnumbered troops into defensive emplacements along a ravine. Sgt. Howard crawled from position to position, resupplying his men with ammunition and directing fire toward the encircling enemy while radioing in fire support from airborne gunships.

After two days of constant firefights with North Vietnamese troops, the stranded platoon was evacuated by U.S. helicopters. Ensuring that all of his men had made it on to the choppers, Sgt. Howard climbed aboard and was the last man to leave the battlefield, according to his Medal of Honor citation.

As a result of his actions, Sgt. Howard received a direct appointment to officer status as a first lieutenant. President Richard M. Nixon presented him with the Medal of Honor in 1971.

Robert Lewis Howard was born July 11, 1939, in Opelika, Ala. He enlisted in the Army in 1956 and joined the 101st Airborne Division.

In 1965, during his first tour of duty in Vietnam, he was wounded by a bullet that ricocheted and glanced his face. While recuperating in a hospital, he was recruited by a Special Forces soldier to join the Green Berets.

He received a bachelor's degree in police administration from Texas Christian University in 1973 and received two master's degrees from Central Michigan University, one in management in 1980 and the other in public administration in 1981.

After retiring from the military, he worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs as a liaison to other veterans. He frequently made trips around the country and abroad to battle zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan to speak with troops about his experiences. From 2007 to 2009, he was president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Col. Howard's marriages to Tina Dickinson and Rona Redfern ended in divorce.

Survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Melissa Gentsch of Waco and Denicia Howard of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; two children from his second marriage, Army Sgt. Robert L. Howard Jr. of Fort Bragg, N.C., and Roslyn Howard of Hawaii; and four grandchildren.

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