On Wednesday, Colonel Robert L. Howard, the most decorated American soldier living, passed away at the age of 70. He served five tours of duty in Vietnam and the extraordinary list of honors and unit citations he received in those years is itemized in his Wikipedia entry. But one honor stands out among them, and how he came to receive it is described by Richard Goldstein in Col. Howard’s New York Times obituary:
In December 1968, Sergeant First Class Howard, his rank at the time, was in a platoon of American and South Vietnamese troops who came under fire while trying to land in their helicopters on a mission to find a missing Green Beret. As the men set out after a prolonged firefight to clear the landing zone, they were attacked by some 250 North Vietnamese troops.
As related in “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty,” by Peter Collier, Sergeant Howard was knocked unconscious by an exploding mine. When he came to, his eyes were bloodied and his hands injured by shrapnel that had also destroyed his rifle. He heard his lieutenant groaning in pain a few yards away. He then saw an enemy soldier with a flamethrower burning the bodies of American and South Vietnamese soldiers who had just been killed.
Sergeant Howard was unable to walk, but he threw a grenade toward the soldier with the flamethrower and managed to grab the lieutenant. As he was crawling with him toward shelter, a bullet struck his ammunition pouch, blowing him several feet down a hill. Clutching a pistol given to him by a fellow soldier, Sergeant Howard shot several North Vietnamese soldiers and got the lieutenant down to a ravine.
Taking command of the surviving and encircled Green Berets, Sergeant Howard administered first aid, encouraged them to return fire and called in air strikes. The Green Berets held off the North Vietnamese until they were evacuated by helicopters.
Having gained an officer’s commission after that exploit, he received the Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon on March 2, 1971. The citation credited him for his “complete devotion to the welfare of his men at the risk of his life.”
Presenting an award to so valiant a warrior was, indeed, one of the proudest moments of the Nixon White House. May the Colonel rest in the eternal peace that he so very much has earned.