Guest column: National Medal of Honor Day 2009
'Extraordinary results from ordinary people'
Special to Stars and Stripes
Courtesy of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society
Col. Robert Howard
As one of America's most decorated soldiers, Col. Robert Howard served five tours in Vietnam and is the only soldier in our nation's history to be nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor three times for three separate actions within a 13-month period.
During Vietnam, he served in the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and spent most of his five tours in the Special Operations Group, which ran classified cross-border operations into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. These men carried out some of the most daring and dangerous missions ever conducted by the U.S. military.
Wounded 14 times in 54 months of combat duty in Vietnam, Robert Howard was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, The Silver Star, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and eight Purple Hearts.
When I joined the military in 1956, I was like many young men my age who enlisted; I wanted to protect the ideals of this country and also build a career. Little did I know that my experiences would lead to a Medal of Honor, and how poignant those lessons would be even now — 53 years later — during our current national hardship.
Just after Christmas in 1968, I was on a mission to rescue a missing American soldier in enemy controlled Vietnam. We had just left the landing zone when we were attacked and many of us critically wounded, including me. For the next three and half hours, I had one choice: to lay and wait, or keep fighting for my men.
If I waited, I gambled that things would get better while I did nothing. If I kept fighting, no matter how painful, I could stack the odds that recovery for my men and a safe exodus was achievable.
On National Medal of Honor Day (March 25) — an annual tribute that I and other recipients humbly appreciate — I encourage Americans to recognize that in untenable situations, selfless people make the difference.
The Medal of Honor has been awarded only 3,448 times since the Civil War, and I’m reminded regularly by my fellow recipients (only 98 are living today) that extraordinary things can be accomplished by ordinary people from all parts of America.
Hard times ask us to put a greater good before our own interests. It is sometimes physically or emotionally painful. Yet throughout history, you will find common men and women who fought selflessly in a variety of ways for something so much larger than just their own benefit.
Today, we’re fighting terrorism and the spread of tyranny. We’re challenged by market upheaval, joblessness and perhaps hunger. But the human spirit is resilient and can withstand more than sometimes we are able to immediately comprehend.
It’s up to each of us to not lay and wait for better days, but instead look for opportunities to make the lives of those around us better. National Medal of Honor Day is not a celebration. It is a solemn time to reflect on the freedom we enjoy, its price, and how our own bravery can improve the world around us.
Col. Robert Howard (USA Ret.) is president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.