Tough, quiet, humble and a Soldier’s Soldier are all descriptions friends and colleagues use when talking about Medal of Honor recipient and Special Operations legend, Army Col. Robert L. Howard. Those attributes and Howard’s lifetime achievements in Special Operations led to his selection as USSOCOM’s 2014 Bull Simons Award recipient.
The Bull Simons Award is USSOCOM’s highest honor and was first awarded in 1990 and has since become an annual tradition. The award recognizes recipients who embody “the true spirit, values, and skills of a Special Operations warrior.” Col. Arthur “Bull” Simons, whom the award is named after, was the epitome of these attributes.
Howard was born on July 11, 1939, in Opelika, Ala. He entered military service on July 20, 1956, following in the footsteps of his father and four uncles who had served in World War II. He retired on Sept. 30, 1992 and died Dec. 23, 2009.
Howard’s legendary combat skills were honed on the battlefields of Vietnam. Howard was assigned to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). While there, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor on three separate occasions. The first two nominations were downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star because of the sensitive operations along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Howard reluctantly accepted the third nomination for the Medal of Honor, ever mindful he would be pulled from combat duty once he accepted the medal.
MACV-SOG ran Special Operations including reconnaissance and hatchet force missions which involved a Special Operations team of American and South Vietnamese members who operated in small covert operations along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The units specialized in search and destroy missions and in locating missing American servicemen in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam.
“MACV-SOG was responsible for the top secret, covert, deniable operations conducted cross border outside Vietnam,” said John Plaster who served in MACV-SOG from 1968 – 1971. “Beginning in 1965 SOG conducted recon and hatchet force missions and other Special Operations missions along the Ho Chi Minh trail corridor in Laos which was the primary route the North Vietnamese used to supply their troops in the south.”
Howard, although originally trained as a supply sergeant, became an integral part of the recon and hatchet force teams.
“At Kontum (Forward Operating Base) Robert Howard was a supply sergeant and he went out of his way to help us to get ready to run our missions,” said retired Army Sgt. Major Billy Greenwood, part of MACV-SOG in 1967 and 1970-1971. “I left for a couple of days and came back and asked where’s Howard? Well, the last recon team was short an American so he went with them. I came to find out he had run as many missions as the recon members, but he was the only man in the outfit who knew supply, so he would take care of the supply room and get everything ready and the next team would go into the field and he would strap on with them.”
Howard was an excellent supply sergeant, but where he really excelled was as a recon Soldier.
“A classic example of what he did, he was wounded in the hospital, but he thought he was doing pretty good, so he goes AWOL from the hospital and went down to Pleiku to eat in the chow hall and two men pulled up on a motorbike and the one on the back throws a grenade,” Greenwood said. “Everybody ducks for cover except Howard who drew a weapon and shot the man on the back causing the bike to turn over. The other man starting running down the road and Howard ran about a half-mile down the road and killed him. Then he came on back, got in the chow line, got his chow and didn’t even report it.”
The battle where Howard earned the Medal of Honor was related in Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, by Peter Collier. Howard was knocked unconscious by an exploding mine. Regaining conscious, his hands were injured by shrapnel and his rifle was destroyed. 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.
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, Howard shot several North Vietnamese soldiers and got the lieutenant down safely to a ravine.
From a 2009 Pentagon Channel documentary entitled Recon: Courage Under Fire, Howard described the action that earned him the Medal of Honor.
“First of all I was ambushed and I was unconscious … my weapon was blown all to hell and then I realized what in the world did I survive to blow that weapon up like that? And then at that point and time I could hear the lieutenant screaming and I knew I had to totally ignore the enemy situation and my wounds … he’s quite a ways from me and I couldn’t walk so I had to crawl over to him,” said Howard. “And so as I start dragging him away as we get attacked by an enemy frontal attack … a bullet riddled the center of my body and the ammo pouches blew up with the ammunition and actually picked me up off the ground and blew me away from the lieutenant … Now this was the split second I didn’t want to go back, but to even hesitate and not to go back makes you feel so bad and you got to do what’s right and it was right. If I didn’t do it there was nobody else there to do it. Who else is going to do it? You got to make a decision. Everybody else was either dead or wounded or they were in a position trying to help me and I know the condition of the lieutenant and I know no one could get the lieutenant but me and I didn’t want to go back, but I did.”
President Nixon would award Howard the Medal of Honor March 2, 1971, in a ceremony at the White House. Howard’s daughter, Melissa Howard-Gentsch remembers attending the ceremony and what they did that day.
“When President Richard M. Nixon came down and I looked up at my father’s face, it was solid as stone, but his eyes, I could see in his eyes so many thoughts going on in his brain,” Howard-Gentsch said. “One thing we did that day was go to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and I had asked him, ‘what is this?’ He explained it to me. I could feel all the emotions, these men had families, these men had served their country and I sort of got the feeling of what it was about. As we walked off he patted on my shoulder and said ‘you get it?’ and I said, ‘I do get it.’”
Serving in Special Operations for another 20 years, Howard would be in charge of advance Ranger training, the Special Forces Qualification Course and command Special Operations Command – Korea.
“I was immediately impressed with the reverence the senior Korean officer gave to Colonel Howard,” said Paul Wiseman, who served as a Special Operations Command-Korea intelligence officer. “When I arrived in Korea I was not familiar with the awards that Colonel Howard had received for his Vietnam service. It was later on I knew I was in the presence of a true American hero.
“Colonel Howard, always in my presence, was the utmost professional, yet the most humble of any of the senior officers I had come across or have since met,” Wiseman said. “I was in his office and I noticed his office was devoid of anything on the walls which kind of surprised me. He had one thing in his office, a picture of Audie Murphy. On the corner of that photo frame was a set of Audie Murphy’s dog tags given to him by the Murphy family. He pointed it out one day and said to me. ‘You know I’m just a Soldier. That man up there is a hero.’”
After retiring from the military, Howard would be active in the Medal of Honor society as the organization’s vice-president.
“When I was president of the Medal of Honor society, we were contacted by the Armed Forces Entertainment Network in Washington D.C. asking if we could get a group of Medal of Honor recipients that would like to visit the troops,” said Gary Littrell, Medal of Honor recipient and former president of the Medal of Honor Society. “He wanted to be back in uniform so bad and when he was talking to the troops it was leadership, it was positive motivation, it wasn’t war stories, it wasn’t I did this, I did that. It was as if he was their colonel.”
Those that knew him best still hold him in great esteem.
“Bob Howard commanded such respect due to his abilities, his courage, his spirit and he was always ready to go. You couldn’t hold him back,” said Plaster. “For those of us running on the ground … Just the knowledge that if you got into trouble, if you were wounded, left somewhere out in the jungle, that Bob Howard would climb on a helicopter and do whatever it took no matter the risk to himself to come get you was reassuring. That was the kind of guy Bob Howard was. You could count on him 100 percent no matter what.”
“Toughest man I ever met in my life – He was a Soldier’s Soldier,” Littrell said.