Only soldier to be nominated for 3 Medal of Honors was the real “Rambo”

Colonel Robert L. Howard

As one of the bloodier conflicts in American history, the Vietnam War harvested its share of heroic men from the populace of Anytown, USA. From the streets of Brooklyn to the bayous of Louisiana and mountains of Colorado, ‘Nam brought on all kinds, with exceptional tales of heroism documented on a daily basis. In total, the Vietnam War yielded 258 Congressional Medals of Honor, each for outstanding acts of bravery from America’s fighting man.

Colonel Robert L. Howard was one such fighting man. Not only was he awarded the Medal of Honor, he was recommended for it three separate times.

Originally an enlisted man, the Alabama native joined in 1956 at the age of seventeen. Eventually, he would find himself working with the super-secretive MACV-SOG, a multi-service special operations unit that conducted special warfare operations.

As a platoon sergeant of the 5th Special Forces group in December of 1968, then-SFC Howard disembarked a helicopter with mission orders to rescue a missing American soldier behind enemy lines, leading a mixture of American and South Vietnamese troops.

As the helicopter took off from the landing zone, Howard’s unit found themselves ambushed by two companies of North Vietnamese soldiers. During the initial battle, Howard and his platoon leader were hit by shrapnel from an exploding grenade, which badly wounded the pair and destroyed Howard’s weapon.

Completely unarmed and unable to walk, Howard crawled through heavy gunfire to grab his fallen platoon leader, administering first aid on site.

Then, the unthinkable happened: as Howard was administering air, an enemy bullet struck Howard’s ammo pouch just right, detonating several magazines of ammunition. Crippled, confused and disoriented, Howard took cover and evaluated the situation, coming to the realization that the scattered platoon would be wiped out without guidance.

Shouldering his testicular fortitude and sucking in his chest, Howard crawled to his platoon leader and dragged them both back to friendly lines before rallying his platoon into an organized defensive formation. Still unarmed and unable to walk, Howard crawled from position to position, encouraging his men and administering first aid while directing fire upon the enemy.

The lush, green environment was alight with muzzle flashes as tracer fire pierced the thick, humid air. The noise was unbearably loud as Soviet and American-made small arms shouted over one another, punctuated by the flat thud of grenades and the faint sound of human voices. Men on both sides dug their boots deeper in the dirt as the tiny American-led force tried desperately to hold off the advance of the vastly superior numbers of North Vietnamese.

The battle raged on for three and a half hours, with Howard’s small force denying victory to the Vietnamese companies on the ground while close air support cleared the way for rescue helicopters. Upon arrival of the evacuation helos, Howard oversaw the loading of the wounded and did not allow himself to be lifted into the helicopter until all of his boys were aboard.

For his absolute selflessness and courage under fire, Howard was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Promoted to 1st Lieutenant, Howard was wounded 14 times in a single 54-month period during Vietnam. In addition to the Medal of Honor, Howard also held the Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, four Legion of Merits, eight Purple Hearts, three Meritorious Service meals, four Bronze Stars, three Air Medals, a Joint Service Commendation, seven Army Commendation medals, the Combat Infantry Badge and several other awards. In short, he probably had to pin his dress coat to his shirt to prevent it from falling off from the sheer weight of his medals.

Howard stayed in the Army until 1992, serving a full 36 years and owning the title of most highly-decorated active duty servicemember until he retired as a Colonel. He worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs afterwards, accruing 50 years of government service, two Master’s degrees and even took periodic “vacations” to Iraq in order to visit active duty troops serving in a war that became increasingly similar to his own.

Howard died in December of 2009, at the age of seventy years old. While one could say that Howard lost his battle against pancreatic cancer, we’d like to think he pulled the pin on the grenade of mortality and took cancer with him, as the only being capable of taking Robert Howard’s life was Robert Howard himself.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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