Robert Howard: The most decorated American soldier in history

Robert L. Howard - Most decorated soldier in US Military history
Robert L. Howard (Right) – Most decorated soldier in US Military history

Robert Howard is the most decorated American soldier in history. He is one of the silent warriors who spent his entire career serving his country and asked nothing in return. Throughout history, since the United States Military records are available, there have been many heroes. But, Robert Howard is a particular one that stands out. A U.S. Army soldier, and Medal of Honor recipient who is arguably the most decorated active-duty soldier who has ever served in the U.S. Military.

Introduction

Robert Howard was a member of the United States Army Special Forces (SF) who fought in the Vietnam War. During his active-duty service, he went from private to colonel. He spent 36 years in active-duty and during that time he was wounded 14 times over 54 months of combat.

Robert Howard: The most decorated American soldier in history
Robert Howard: The most decorated American soldier in history (Photo: XY)

Military service

Robert L. Howard was born on July 11, 1939, in Opelika, Alabama. While still in high school, he enlisted in the Army in 1956 at Montgomery, Alabama. He saw his first combat in the Vietnam War. His service in Vietnam included assignments with 1/327th Airborne Infantry, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, 5th Special Forces Group and now legendary MACV-SOG.

MACV-SOG

During his time in Vietnam, he served also as a staff sergeant of the highly classified Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). MACV-SOG was considered as the forerunner of modern U.S. Army Special Forces (SF). For his actions during thirteen months spanning 1967–1968, under the MACV-SOG, Howard was recommended for the Medal of Honor on three occasions for three individual actions where he risked his life on behalf of the others.

His gallantry in action, his complete devotion to the welfare of his men at the risk of his life were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army. But, despite his heroic act, the first two nominations were downgraded to a Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross due to the covert and top-secret nature of the operations in which Howard participated.

Vietnam-era MACV-SOG is a forerunner of the modern U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets)
Vietnam-era MACV-SOG is a forerunner of the modern U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) (Photo: History)

As a sergeant first class of the SOG, he risked his life during a rescue mission in Cambodia on December 30, 1968, while second in command of a platoon-sized Hatchet Force that was searching for missing American soldier Robert Scherdin for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He learned of the award over a two-way radio while under enemy fire, immediately after being wounded, resulting in one of his eight Purple Hearts.

Robert Howard was wounded 14 times during a 54-month period in the Vietnam War, mostly as a member of MACV-SOG. For his distinguished service, he received a direct appointment from Master Sergeant to First Lieutenant in December 1969.

Military achievements and education

Robert Howard graduated from Ranger School class 7-73 in May 1973 and served with the 2nd Ranger Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington as a company commander. From 1977 to 1978 he served as Mountain Ranger Training instructor. Howard later served as officer-in-charge of Special Forces training at Camp Mackall, near Ft. Bragg, N.C., and later, commanding the Mountain Ranger Training Camp at Dahlonega, Georgia

Robert Howard graduated from the National War College, Class 1987–1988. He received two master’s degrees during his Army career which spanned 1956 to 1992. Howard retired as a colonel in 1992. Howard is the most highly decorated American soldier of the modern era.

Post-military life

His residence was in Texas and he spent much of his free time working with veterans until the time of his death. He also took periodic trips to Iraq to visit active-duty troops. Howard died of pancreatic cancer at a hospital in Waco, Texas, on December 23, 2009. He was survived by four children and five grandchildren.

His funeral was in Arlington National Cemetery on February 22, 2010.

Robert L. Howard rest in peace at Arlington cemetery
Robert Howard rest in peace at Arlington cemetery (Photo: Arlington)

Awards and Recommendations

For his service, Robert Howard was awarded the Medal of Honor, eight Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, and four Bronze Stars. Robert Howard was nominated for the Medal of Honor three times over a 13-month period but received lesser medals for the first two nominations, which were for actions performed in Cambodia where the U.S. was fighting covertly. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on December 30, 1968, after his third nomination.

Robert Howard retired from the US Army after 36 years of service as a full colonel, and the most highly decorated service member on active duty. He is also considered the most decorated American soldier in US military history.

Personal awards

  • Medal of Honor
  • Distinguished Service Cross with oak leaf cluster
  • Silver Star
  • Legion of Merit with 3 oak leaf clusters
  • Bronze Star with “V” device & 3 oak leaf clusters
  • Purple Heart with 7 oak leaf clusters
  • Bronze oak leaf cluster
  • Bronze oak leaf cluster
  • Meritorious Service Medal with 2 oak leaf clusters
  • Bronze oak leaf cluster
  • Bronze oak leaf cluster
  • Bronze oak leaf cluster
  • Air Medal with “V” device & award numerals 3
  • Joint Service Commendation
  • Silver oak leaf cluster
  • Bronze oak leaf cluster
  • Army Commendation Medal with “V” device & 6 oak leaf clusters
  • Joint Service Achievement Medal
  • Army Achievement Medal

Unit awards

  • Bronze oak leaf cluster
  • Presidential Unit Citation with oak leaf cluster
  • Meritorious Unit Commendation
  • Navy Unit Commendation
  • Service awards
  • Good Conduct Medal with 4 Good Conduct Loops
  • Campaign & Service awards
  • National Defense Service Medal
  • Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal with 3 service stars
  • Vietnam Service Medal with 3 service stars

Service & Training awards

  • Army Overseas Service Ribbon
  • Armed Forces Reserve Medal
  • Bronze oak leaf cluster
  • Bronze oak leaf cluster
  • NCO Professional Development Ribbon with award numeral “2”
  • Army Service Ribbon

Badges and tabs

  • Special Forces Tab
  • Ranger Tab
  • Combat Infantryman Badge
  • Expert Infantryman Badge
  • Aircrew Badge
  • US Army Airborne master parachutist
  • Master Parachutist Badge
  • Air Assault Badge
  • Pathfinder Badge
  • Expert Marksmanship Badge

Foreign Awards & Decorations

  • Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star (Corps), Silver Star (Division) and Bronze Star (Regiment/Brigade)
  • Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal, 1st Class
  • Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Medal, 1st Class
  • Republic of Vietnam Wound Medal
  • Republic of Vietnam Staff Service Medal, 2nd Class
  • Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 bar
  • Republic of Korea Order of National Security Merit (Sam-Il Medal)
  • Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry Unit Citation with Palm
  • Vietnam Civil Actions Unit Citation with Palm

Individual & Unit awards

  • Bronze star
  • Silver star
  • Gold star

Badges

  • French Parachutist Badge
  • Republic of Vietnam Master Parachute Badge
  • Republic of Vietnam Ranger Badge
  • Thai Master Parachute Wings
  • Korean Master Parachute Badge
  • Thai Balloonist Badge
3 comments
  1. What? He wasn’t the most decorated soldier in history, The correct answer is Audie Murphy

  2. @alex

    Both Howard and Murphy are considered as one of the most decorated soldiers ever, but they fought in different wars and under different occasions. Probably Audie has few more awards, but… However, they both are still most decorated soldiers in US military history…

  3. Robert L. Howard was the only soldier in the history of the United States to be nominated three times for the Medal of Honor, our country’s highest military decoration, which is awarded to members of the armed forces who distinguish themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.” All men who fought beside Howard agreed that he earned all those three Medal of Honors and that it was unfair to receive only one for his actions…

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