Over the years SOFREP has written several articles about the legendary paratrooper and Army Special Forces Colonel Robert J. Howard who really doesn’t need any elaborate introduction here. But if you’ve just returned from a 40-year stay on the Moon you can read more about him in the links below before you go on.
There are dozens of stories about Colonel Howard. At one time was said to be the most decorated soldier still on active duty until his retirement in 1992. After retirement, he worked just as hard to take care of veterans while employed by the VA and even visited the troops in Iraq. By all accounts, he was a simple, humble, and incredibly brave soldier. But I don’t think the story you’re about to read has ever been told. It’s about what Colonel Howard had to go through just so the Army could hang the Medal of Honor around his neck. Like almost everything in the life of this extraordinary soldier, even the news that he was being awarded the Medal of Honor would bring its own perils.
It was late February 1971, Howard had received a direct commission in 1969 and was back in Vietnam again. He was now a captain and company commander at a base near Kon Tum near the borders of Laos and Cambodia and leading a series of Special Forces small unit operations into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. As Colonel Howard described it in an interview for the Veterans History Project his unit was comprised of 218 men broken down into teams of six to eight men.
Operating out of this same base on December 30, 1968, Howard had been nominated for the Medal of Honor while a member of a 40-man Bright Light rescue mission. The men were searching for PFC Robert Scherdin who been separated from a SOG reconnaissance team in northeastern Cambodia. Inserted by helicopters and immediately attacked by NVA forces they fought their way out of the LZ to try and reach their objective. Howard and his Jerson, his lieutenant, were then ambushed and both badly wounded by a land mine. Temporarily blinded by the blast, he nevertheless crawled to LT Jerson, administered first-aid, and pulled him off the hill and out of the ambush. Howard then organized the remaining 20 men of his platoon and directed fire for over three-and-a-half hours until they were finally extracted by helicopter. Howard was very badly wounded but nevertheless, he was the last man to board a helicopter. His lieutenant did not survive his injuries.
Now more than two years later and a long hospital stay, Howard was back at this same camp, while his nomination for the MOH languished in the bureaucracy.
And that camp was under heavy mortar attack. The NVA were moving into South Vietnam with the intention of taking the city of Kon Tum and Howard’s base camp was in the way of that. Howard was aware this mortar attack was the precursor to a ground attack by NVA forces and was moving under fire to set up his defensive parameter to defend his base. As he was crawling over the sandbags into one of his own mortar pits an enemy round impacted nearby and the shrapnel cut into one of his boots wounding him in the foot. As he assessed his injury while continuing to organize the defense, a breathless NCO found him, stating that he needed to get to the TOC because the Army Chief of Staff was on the field telephone and wanted to talk to him. Howard, no doubt distracted by his injury and focus on getting his defenses organized simply asked, “Why would he want to talk to me?” The NCO repeated, “General Westmoreland in Washington DC wants to talk to you. It’s a special message.” So, limping, bleeding, and dodging mortar rounds Howard managed to get across the base and into the TOC. Handed the field telephone receiver he heard Westmoreland asking him, “Bob, how ya doing?”
Howard took a breath and replied, “Sir, the situation is pretty damn bad here, plus my foot hurts, I just got shot in it… But how are you doing?”
General Westmoreland paused and then continued with the special message, “Bob, congratulations, you’ve just been — I’ve just been told that you’re gonna receive the Medal of Honor. And you’re to be in Washington DC on February the 27th.”
Exploding mortar rounds were still going off just yards outside the TOC. Howard took a moment and then answered: “Well general, I don’t think that’s possible. We got — the enemy’s got us…”
Westmoreland cut him off, “I hear you guys are in a little trouble, I’ve got ahold of General Abrams and he’s gonna get you out of there.”
Howard’s foot was being bandaged as he talked to the general, “Well he’s gonna have to hurry up because the mortar rounds are coming in pretty heavy over here and a ground attack will be coming….”
Westmoreland interrupted again, “Bob, we’ve got the Fourth Infantry Division down there, and well get you out. Let me talk to your colonel again.”
After getting off the phone, the colonel informed Howard that he could not go back outside the TOC and risk being killed. Howard protested, “I’ve got a damn company out there colonel — the enemy’s gonna attack the camp. Somebody needs to be in charge of it.” The colonel relented and he and Howard completed setting up their defensive parameter into the early morning hours. True to his word the 4th ID did arrive after that call but not at the camp itself. The division landed and secured the airfield at Kon Tum city in order to fly General Abrams personal aircraft in to evacuate Howard to Saigon and then Washington DC. But that airfield was miles away and the NVA was between them. The 4th ID’s capturing the airfield had diverted enemy pressure off of Howard’s small camp. But to get to that secured airfield Howard would have to get across a bridge on the Dak Bai River which was likely under enemy control. The colonel assigned him a team in a sandbagged up “Duce and a Half” truck. They set out for the airfield with Howard seating next to the driver.
As they approached the bridge, which was indeed held by the enemy, Howard looked at the SGT driving the truck and said, “just drive through.” What followed was a speeding dash through a three-mile gauntlet of enemy fire all the way to the airfield. They arrived with the truck badly shot up and smoking but everyone miraculously unharmed. Howard was greeted by a pair of General Abrams’s aides and boarded a prop-driven Beechcraft C-12. As the plane took off and climbed steeply, Howard watched the battle to retake Kon Tum unfold below him. The men from the 4th ID and the NVA soldiers were running through the streets fighting each other.
The aides had to be shocked at Howard’s appearance. He was dirty, blood-splattered, and unshaved, wearing the field uniform he’s had on for days, with a tattered boot and bandaged foot from a shrapnel wound. Arriving at Tan Son Nhut airbase in Saigon, Howard was swarmed by a flock of colonels who informed him he would be billeted in a plush trailer next to General Abrams where he could take a shower and get cleaned up. That night all the ranking officers in Vietnam had been invited to attend a dinner held in Howard’s honor and hosted by Abrams.
Howard informed the colonels that he didn’t have anything with him, not even a toothbrush. He was immediately measured and fitted for new uniforms. He also had his bandages changed.
Under the stress of prolonged combat, the human body is capable of great feats of endurance and can ignore pain and discomforts unimaginable in everyday life. But being so suddenly removed from the danger and stresses of combat and finding himself in the air-conditioned luxury of that VIP trailer, Howard felt immense fatigue set in and became violently ill.
Now there were these new stresses being placed on him. Howard had been born dirt poor in Opelika Alabama. His father had been drafted to fight in WWII and his mother had left to work in a textile mill to help support them. Howard and his sister had spent years being raised very simply by his grandmother. They weren’t far from Fort Benning in Georgia. Howard would see paratroopers in training in the area’s skies and on the ground. Soon, his boyhood dream was to become a paratrooper.
He enlisted at 18, right out of high school, and became a paratrooper and Special Forces sergeant. His Direct Commission in the field as an officer didn’t include. “Fork and Knife School” yet, so he was very uncomfortable at the idea of attending this formal dinner in his honor attended by all the brass. Being the center of all that attention, just wasn’t who he was.
Howard tried to get out of it, “I don’t want a dinner. If you’re gonna take me back to Washington, let’s go as soon as you can,” he told one of the colonels who nodded but left to inform Abrams that Howard was sick and did not want to attend the dinner.
Soon a freshly starched set of green fatigues and shined boots arrived for Howard with name tapes and captain’s bars sewn on. Howard rested in the soft bed in the trailer, having showered and shaved with a new “Dop-kit.” About an hour before the dinner was scheduled, General Creighton Abrams, commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, let himself into the trailer.
Abrams was himself a hero in his own right. A West Point graduate, class of 1936, and a captain when WWII began. He was a tough, aggressive cavalry officer, and his regiment, the 37th Tank Battalion, had been the tip of the spear of Patton’s Third Army. Patton later said of Abrams, “I’m supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer— Abe Abrams. He’s the world champion.” Abrams would finish WWII as a full colonel at the age of just 31. Today’s M1A, MBT, the ‘Abrams Tank’ is named after him.
Without waiting for the formal salute that a captain owed a four-star general, Abrams physically embraced Howard in a hug and told him how proud he was to meet him and what an inspiration he was to the troops in the Army. General Abrams invited Howard to meet his staff and explained that this dinner was entirely in his honor, as a way of acknowledging his achievement. Incredibly, Howard still tried to avoid going saying he felt ill and did not want to eat. Abrams smiled and nodded and told Howard that he could eat or not eat as he pleased, but was going to at that dinner no matter what. Howard nodded and began to get dressed. At the dinner, Abrams was effusive in his praise of Howard, and all the officers attending wanted to meet and greet him. Howard remained sick, feverish, and picked at his food.
The next day, Howard boarded a Continental Airlines flight to Oakland, California. He complained that he still didn’t have any uniforms except for the newly starched fatigues he was wearing. He was assured that General Abrams would make sure a new uniform issue would be waiting for him in Oakland. The plane was full of soldiers returning home. Howard was seating in the first-class section and extended all the comforts of VIP travel, but he spent the flight puking into air sickness bags, anyway. He spent the entire flight of some 21 hours in the air with two refueling stops, sick as a dog.
Arriving in Oakland he was so dehydrated and weak he could barely walk. There, he was met by another cluster of colonels who had a set of officer khakis for him to wear but without medals. Howard was bundled into a van where he changed uniforms and then boarded another agonizing flight from California to Washington DC. Once again, he was sick for the entire seven-hour flight.
Landing in DC, a now gaunt, pale Howard was met by his wife and two daughters, one of whom he had not yet seen in person since her birth. Another delegation of colonels escorted them to a suite in a luxury hotel downtown where he was informed that he could not eat in the hotel or order room service, that it was too expensive and the Army could not pay for it. Howard and his family got settled into the suite and then went out to eat, but something in Howard began to burn.
The next day, a colonel appeared and told Howard that there was a problem: The Capitol building had been bombed by Leftist terrorists and DC had locked down. There might not be any ceremony at all! Howard said he didn’t care and wanted to go back to his unit in Vietnam, anyway, as soon as possible since he had a deployment to complete. Later on that day, the colonel appeared again to brief Howard that the ceremony would be moved from February 27 to March 2. After all that had to happen to even get him to DC in this bug rush, now he had to wait. Howard looked at his family and made a decision. It would turn out to be a rather fateful one.
“[Room service] was the greatest part of me receiving the Medal of Honor”
“I was gonna dignify my damn family and eat in the hotel just like high-level people did you know. And so, so I got everybody together and I said tomorrow morning, we’re gonna eat here in this room and we’re gonna order and our government’s gonna pay for it regardless of what that colonel said….And so the next morning we got room service and it was wonderful. They set up and we had room service in the room. And my daughters were thrilled. They couldn’t believe that you had service like that in the United States. And my wife was certainly thrilled. And we had breakfast in the room – it was the greatest part of me receiving the medal of honor.”
The colonel who had ordered Howard and his family not to order the expensive food in the hotel blew a gasket when he was given notice of the bill and went to confront Howard about it directly. Howard cut him off before he could begin,
“If you even mention about me having room service, sir, I will personally be insubordinate and kick your ass right here. I finally got something dignified in my life and for my family and I’m not gonna let you deprive them of it. Now you figure out how to pay it. If you can’t figure out how to pay it, I don’t want you to worry me with [sic] it. Or even worry my family about it.” Howard’s voice began to rise as he finished, “And from now on, you don’t tell me anything, do you understand that?”
The colonel took a long moment to consider the situation he was in with the young captain and probably decided he didn’t want to be on the wrong side of a beating by Howard or worse, have to explain to the generals or to President Nixon himself how he ended up getting such a beating. He dropped the issue of room service and told Howard that General Westmoreland, the Army Chief of staff, wanted to meet him in person along with the Secretary of Defence and the Secretary of the Army. Howard was then whisked off to the Pentagon.
General Westmoreland greeted Howard warmly in his personal office. “Bob, how are they treating you?” Westmoreland said smiling and extending his hand.
Howard wasted no words with the general. “Terrible, do know they wouldn’t even let us have room service number one? And that colonel you put escorting us is worried about spending money. And — and you can’t get your schedules straight. Now general you’re a better general that — you need to get that sorted out if you’re gonna treat me like a hero.”
Westmoreland’s smile flew away from his face. “By God, we’re going to get that straightened out RIGHT NOW!” his look and tone sent his aides’ scattering to the telephones.
“Bob, we’re gonna take you in to see Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense. And the Secretary of the Army wants to talk to you because his nephew is in your company in Vietnam and he’s listed as missing in action right now.” Howard was not sure what this was about but he had a pretty good idea.
Howard was on his way to meet Melvin Laird, the Secretary of Defence, when he was informed that for the ceremony he would be wearing a new set of dress blues. Howard chose to engage in another informally insubordinate act against this mafia of colonels besetting him.
“No Sir,” he said, “I will NOT go in to receive the Medal of Honor in dress blues. I will wear a class A uniform which is what I think is formal. And I will also wear blouse boots because I was a Special Forces Sergeant and a paratrooper.”
The aid frowned and replied, “Secretary Laird will not like that.”
Howard snapped back, “Fine I don’t want the award, I’ll tell him myself.”
But Secretary Laird was more agreeable and wanted to hear what Howard had to say. “Bob, I understand you are upset about my asking that you wear dress blues to your ceremony.”
Howard was just and blunt with Laird, “Yes, sir,” he began, “If you can’t understand that I’m a Special Forces officer and that’s the only reason I’m a special forces officer — because we wear bloused boots and we’re paratroopers and I’m a paratrooper and if I can’t receive an award as a paratrooper, I don’t want the award.”
Laird relented. “Okay Bob, you can wear your Dress A uniform if you want.”
Howard was then ushered into to meet Stanley Resor, the Secretary of the Army. Resor met Howard with a handshake and an offer to sit down. On his desk was a thick file folder. After exchanging courtesies about Howard’s MOH award, Resor began to question him intently about an after-action report Howard had filed that mentioned Resor’s nephew, David Mixter, who was in Howard’s company. Howard’s report detailed the horrific death of Resor’s nephew at the hands of the NVA. Mixter was decapitated and dismembered. The enemy took his head, hands, and feet with them, leaving just the torso behind. Howard had led an effort to try and recover their lost teammates and had found the mutilated bodies. Without the head, hands, or feet a positive identification was hard to make.
Secretary Resor didn’t believe the mutilated remains were his nephew’s. He wanted to believe instead that he was missing in action or was a POW. He was distraught over the idea that his nephew could have died that way and wanted Howard to tell him there was some doubt, some hope that the chopped up body was not his nephew’s. Howard explained patiently but firmly that the recovery operation was led by him hoping to find alive survivors but that there was no doubt the large headless, armless, and footless torso could only have been Dave Mixter. He was very tall at 6’4″.
Howard gave it straight to Resor, “Mr. Secretary, whether you agree with it or not, he’s dead. He’s not missing in action. I know him and — and you know I was on recovery and that was him. Whether we could positively identify him, or not.” Both would end up shedding tears together at that meeting. Resor at the loss of his nephew David, and Howard at the loss of one of his men.
Here can listen to a radio traffic recording by helicopter gunships and medevacs trying to get to Mixter’s Recon Team on that fateful day. Sgt Mixter’s callsign was “Lurch.” The words of his team leader calling in a fire mission just 50 yards from their position are haunting:
“There’s only two of us left! Charlie is dead on our ass!”
In spite of this emotional meeting with Howard, Sgt David Mixter’s status remains today as, “Missing and presumed dead, 29JAN1971.” Recorded circumstances attributed to “[Death by] hostile action, small arms fire. Body not recovered. Incident Location: Laos, Binh Dinh province.” Not recovered because his hacked-off head, arms, and feet were never found preventing positive identification by fingerprints and dental records. This is why the NVA did such things: to deny families the closure of certainty. Dave Mixter was just a week past his 22nd birthday when he died.
That afternoon, when Captain Howard got back to the hotel and his family he found that a new colonel had replaced his previous “escort” and the government had gotten its act together as Westmoreland had promised.
“Where would you and your family like to go tonight, captain?” he asked.
Howard shot for the Moon, “My wife has mentioned to me that she would like to go to a theater. A real theater where they have a show. And since we’re in Washington DC, she would like to do that. Then after the theater, I would like to treat her to dinner. A wonderful dinner and I would like to have wine, a real genuine dinner after the theater. And I’d like for my daughters to go too. And of course, my wife’s aunt who traveled with her here.” And it happened just like that. The colonel made all the arrangements, brought his own wife along and Captain Howard and his family saw a show in a theater, had a nice dinner with wine and all the trimmings, and as Howard later described it, “They treated us like we were real people.”
And Uncle Sugar picked up the tab for all of it.
The next day, the Howard family again enjoyed a vast room service breakfast, though they hadn’t ordered one. It just showed up. The day’s plan was simple: two cars, one for his family and the other for him and his escorting colonel, would pick them up at the hotel. President Nixon would greet him at the White House and then he would meet with his family in a reception room indoors. When Howard arrived President Nixon was there to greet him as he stepped from the car.
For this occasion, the regular Marine Corps band had been replaced with the Army Band. General Westmoreland was there along with the Secretary of Defense and the secretaries of the other service branches. There were also previous Medal of Honor recipients attending, men like Wes Fox and George Lang who wanted to meet him and shake his hand. In what seemed like mere moments, the Army Band began to play Hail to the Chief and the room stood and came to attention as President Nixon entered. He walked over to Robert Howard and an aide held open the presentation box with the Medal of Honor. Howard spotted the medal in Nixon’s hand and he got tunnel vision. All he could see was Nixon’s hands holding the medal as he reached to place it around his neck. The color drained from his face and the president worried Howard might faint.
“Captain Howard, are you okay?” the president asked.
“I don’t know if I’m gonna faint or not, I apologize for my looks but I think my heart stopped beating,” Howard managed to reply weakly.
As Nixon place the medal around his neck he muttered softly near Howard’s ear, “This great country appreciates you, Bob.”
There are pictures of Howard receiving the Medal of Honor from Nixon, one as he is affixing the medal and the other as Nixon shakes his hand. The photos were taken 30 seconds to one minute apart. Captain Howard’s facial expression is frozen in both pictures. He does look as if he might faint dead right there after all that he had gone through just to stand there and let President Nixon pin that medal on him.
As for the appreciation of a great nation, the Associated Press wrote just 10 lines about Robert Howard being awarded the Medal of Honor on March 2, 1971. After the ceremony, Captain Howard had one more thing he wanted to do while in DC. His father and three of his uncles had died fighting in WWII. He had his driver take him to Arlington National Cemetery.
Then, Captain Robert J. Howard in his Class A uniform wearing the Medal of Honor and the bloused boots of the paratrooper he wanted to be since he was a boy stood before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and saluted his father and uncles.
— He saluted them