Tag Archive | "Arlington National Cemetery"

In Memoriam: Robert Lewis Howard

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To the average American, the passing of Robert L. Howard went unnoticed but for the family and friends who survived him.  Yet, one of the most decorated soldiers of the Vietnam War compelled the news media to devote a brief commentary to him.  So, who was this man?

Born on July 11, 1939, at the age of 17, the Opelika, Alabama native enlisted in the U.S. Army, in Montgomery, Alabama.  The year was 1956.  By the time Howard had arrived in Vietnam, he had risen through the ranks, attaining status as a Staff Sergeant assigned to the highly classified Military Assistance Command-Studies and Observation Group.

During his brief tour of duty spanning 13 months between 1967 and 1968, he was nominated for the Medal of Honor on no less than three separate occasions.  The first two nominations had to be downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross, due to the covert nature of the operations in which he was engaged.

On December 30, 1968 in Cambodia, Howard, who by then had become a Sergeant First Class, was second in command of a platoon-sized force.  While searching through the steaming jungle for a missing American soldier named Robert Scherdin, Howard put his life on the line. Outnumbered and wounded so badly by grenade blasts that was unable to walk, he crawled tenaciously through a hail of fire to drag his wounded platoon leader to safety.  Compounding this act of supreme bravery, he insisted upon being the last man to board the helicopter, which evacuated them to a medical facility.  For this action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

During those thirteen months in Vietnam, Howard was wounded no less than fourteen times.  Eight Purple Hearts as well as numerous other honors, including the Silver Star and other medals bearing Oak Leaf Clusters, distinguished his uncommon valor.

In 1971, in a private ceremony that took place in The White House, President Richard M. Nixon bestowed the Medal of Honor upon Lieutenant Howard and six other recipients.  Nixon’s motivation for the privacy was his wish that his policies concerning the Vietnam War not be misinterpreted as an attempt to garner sympathy among the general public for the conflict.  Indeed, it was Nixon who ultimately put an end to this very long and bloody battle.

Colonel Robert L. Howard retired after a 36-year career with the Army career.  Upon his retirement, he chose to continue to serve his country by working for The Department of Veteran Affairs. A constant supporter of veterans’ needs who always put his words into action, Howard made several tours of Iraq, to provide his insight on warfare to the men in the field.

On December 23, 2009, America lost another brave son.  Robert L. Howard is survived and remembered by his three children and four grandchildren.  While in Basic Training at Fort Benning, Georgia, his son Robert Junior proclaimed, “I admire [my father] greatly for everything he has done.  My dad is a hero.”  Another family member allowed, “He was a soldier’s soldier, always looking out for his men.”

Colonel Robert L. Howard rests in Arlington National Cemetery, along with the many war heroes who preceded him. 

Rainbow Tears

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Rainbow in Water

(Artwork is by Christara Copyrighted © http://my.desktopnexus.com/christara/)
(Link to artwork: http://abstract.desktopnexus.com/wallpaper/27127/)


Seven years ago, I was dragged quite reluctantly into Pearl Harbor on Oahu, one of the bright gems in Hawaii’s gorgeous necklace of islands.  I was there with my husband to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary, just as the first anniversary of 9/11 was looming upon the horizon.  As a New Yorker deeply affected by 9/11 and whose youth, indeed spirit, was marked by Vietnam, I wanted no further reminders of war, particularly on a long journey meant to be joyous.  But my husband insisted that, as Americans, it was our duty to visit Pearl Harbor.  And so, we did.

The film shown to all visitors on the first leg of their journey through the harbor left me sobbing.  I tried to leave after the film, but my husband advised me that, in years to come, I would be sorry if I did.  As it turned out, he would have been right.

We were ferried across the bay to a floating structure that seemed at first glance like something out of the original Star Trek series.   This pure white structure rocked gently upon the water like a futuristic subway car.  It was long and its ceiling curved.  The deepest part of the arc was at the ceiling’s middle; its two ends bowed upward at a rather sharp curve.

Our military escort had explained that the monument had been designed to depict World War II.  The deep arc denoted Pearl Harbor Day, the lowest point in our nation’s history during this long, bloody battle, while the soaring ends represented our nation’s final triumph over our enemies.   And then our escort startled me badly by explaining that we were about to visit a mass grave.

Well below the monument, at the bottom of the bay, sat the U.S.S. Arizona.  Other naval ships had been bombed and destroyed on that infamous December 7th, 1941, but the Arizona had taken the biggest hit.  More lives had been lost aboard her than on any other vessel, and some of the bodies had never been recovered.

I had been to the National Cemetery at Arlington years before.  The sight of so very many small white headstones, stretching for what seemed infinity, was a terrible thing to behold.  But somehow, the chapel aboard the monument in Pearl Harbor was worse.  Eternal flames flickered there, beside urns of fresh flowers brought daily by visitors and the loved ones of those who had gone down with the Arizona.  Above these remembrances on a large white marbled wall were carved the names of the soldiers, those who had died during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

To see the same surname three and four and five times in a row was a blow to the gut.  I could not imagine families losing so many loved ones in the blink of an eye.  It was too close to that raw wound, 9/11, for me.  I ached to be gone from that floating tomb, but was compelled to remain there until the skiff returned to the island at its appointed time.  As I waited, my lips moved silently over every name on the wall, as did my husband’s.  Not to do so would have been disrespectful.  I thought of all the wars that had occurred during my lifetime, in which our nation had been engaged — far too many wars.  In my heart’s eye, I saw the Twin Towers fall again like vertical dominoes in a terrible cloud.   And I recalled an old and painfully truthful song by Sting, “History Will Teach Us Nothing.”

Desperate to escape this horror, I made my way to the railing as quickly as decorum allowed.   I looked over the side and watched as fresh flowers, tossed from the hands of other visitors, landed upon the water in honor of our dead.  But as I peered more closely, I saw small rainbows blooming on the surface of the sea.   They were globules of oil, escaping from the Arizona.  Sixty-one years after she had gone down fighting, the oil in her tanks was still rising, gently kissing the surface of the water.  Day by day, minute by minute, drop by drop, they rose and bloomed, then dissipated and died.  But even as they expired, new rainbows appeared, dark upon the water, only to die and be replaced by others.   “Rainbow tears,” I breathed to my husband, who watched in horror and fascination.

I am no physicist, but I questioned how, sixty-one years later, these rainbow tears could still be shed by the ship below my feet, holding many still entombed within her.  “How much oil does such a vessel hold?  Should not the tears have stopped long before now?” I wondered.

I don’t have the answer to the first question, but I believe I have the answer to the second.  The rainbow tears still bloom above the Arizona as a reminder of the sacrifices of our military, and of the sacrifices of the loved ones they have left behind.

In my heart, I believe that they still bloom as a reminder of the costs of war, well beyond the billions of dollars spent in arms and equipment and the inevitable reparations that we must make to those upon whose lands we wage our battles.  The tears, in my opinion, are a small but definite miracle, a cry from those below to find our way toward peace on the troubled waters of our human existence.

Rainbow Over Pearl Harbor

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