Retired Army Col. Robert L. Howard was a Medal of Honor recipient and one of America’s most highly decorated soldiers from the Vietnam War. He served five tours in Vietnam and is the only soldier in the nation to be nominated for the Medal of Honor three times for three separate actions within a 13-month period.
In addition to being awarded the nation’s highest military decoration, Howard also received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star for his actions in Vietnam between 1968 and 1969.
In the history books and in the hearts of all his soldiers, Howard was a hero. But to his son, Sgt. Robert L. Howard Jr., he was simply Dad.
“You know everyone talks about his military accolades and all he accomplished ... but just as a regular person he was also a great man,” he said.
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A memorial service was held Wednesday on Fort Benning for the 36-year Army veteran who served much of his career in Airborne, Ranger and Special Forces units. He died of pancreatic cancer on Dec. 23 at a hospice in Waco, Texas, according a New York Times article. He was 70.
“The Rangers meant a lot to him,” his son said. “That was a special place in his heart.”
Wednesday’s event drew about 150 soldiers and civilians to the Ranger Memorial where Col. Michael E. Kurilla, commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, and Sgt. Howard posted a wreath in honor of the seasoned soldier.
“Before the Ranger Creed was even written, Bob Howard lived it,” Kurilla said. “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.”
Howard’s military career
Born July 11, 1939, in Opelika, Ala., Howard was known throughout the Army and the military’s Special Operations community for his courage and leadership in combat. He entered the military on July 20, 1956, and served until he medically retired on Sept. 30, 1992.
Howard earned the Medal of Honor for actions in Vietnam on Dec. 30, 1968. He was nominated three times for the award in 13 months; the first was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest honor, and the last was downgraded to a Silver Star. All three came while he served as a non-commissioned officer in the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam—Studies and Observations Group. During his 54 months of combat in Vietnam, Howard was wounded 14 times and received eight Purple Hearts. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by former President Richard M. Nixon at the White House on March 2, 1971.
But Howard’s son said his father’s military service didn’t inspire him to join the Army.
“Actually he inspired me not to — to begin with — because you can’t fill those shoes,” said the young sergeant who is stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he is going through Special Forces training. “But I didn’t want to look back 20 years from now and be like I did nothing during the era where I could have done something for my country.”
His favorite memory of his father is when he taught him how to throw a knife around the age of 5. He said they also used to take walks around the bayous outside Houston. “I guess he was trying to teach me survival training or something,” the younger Howard said.
Col. Howard’s military assignments include duty with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division; the 2nd Ranger Battalion; 3rd, 5th and 6th Special Forces Group; 5th Infantry Division; 7th Corps; and XVII Airborne. In 2005, he was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame.
“Everyone talks about how tough he was and he was probably one of the toughest bastards I’ve ever met,” Sgt. Howard said. “But he was also a sweetheart at the same time. I know none of these Rangers saw it or anyone who served under him or with him, but he was a really good father. He tried to lead us all in the right direction.”