Robert Howard, a Special Forces Army Ranger and one of the Vietnam War's most highly decorated service members, 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 in Waco, Texas. He was 70, and 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 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, he and his lieutenant were blown back by an antipersonnel mine that signaled a 250-man ambush on their platoon. The blast knocked the sergeant unconscious, and the shrapnel wounded his hands and destroyed his rifle.
When he came to, he 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, the sergeant 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 the sergeant was administering aid to the wounded officer, a bullet struck the sergeant's ammunition pouch. The badly injured sergeant moved back to the lieutenant and began dragging him toward the remaining Special Forces soldiers, shooting several North Vietnamese.
The sergeant took charge of the battered platoon and helped organize the overpowered and outnumbered troops into defensive emplacements along a ravine.
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, he climbed aboard and was the last man to leave the battlefield, according to his Medal of Honor citation.
After retiring from the military, Col. Howard worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs as a liaison to other veterans.