Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Richard Etchberger
U. S. Air Force

On Sept. 21, 2010, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Chief Master Sergeant Richard Etchberger (USAF) for actions taken four decades ago.

“Even though it has been 42 years, it's never too late to do the right thing and it's never too late to pay tribute to our Vietnam veterans and their families,” the president said at an East Room ceremony this afternoon.

The award is the highest military decoration that the nation can bestow, awarded for “conspicuous gallantry” the president said -- for risking one's life in action and for serving beyond the call of duty.

There’s a twist to this particular story though.

Etchberger’s mission was so secret – upon his death, his three sons were told their dad was a hero, and had died while saving fellow airmen, but were not told much else. His work was classified for years, his family left without the details of his heroic death.

“Then, nearly two decades later, the phone rang,” the president recalled today, “It was the Air Force and their father's mission was finally being declassified and that's when they learned the truth, that their father had given his life not in Vietnam but in neighboring Laos. That's when they began to learn the true measure of their father's heroism.”

Air Force Chief Master Sgt Etchberger, a native of Hamburg, PA, came under ground attack at a US encampment in Laos, next door to Vietnam, when American forces were not legally in combat, technically considered a civilian at the time his base was attacked. Etchberger was a radar technician handpicked for a secret assignment to man, along with a team, a tiny radar station guiding American pilots in the air campaign against North Vietnam.

The president described how on Etchberger’s fateful day he looked through binoculars and saw that their mountain was surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese troops. After deciding that they would continue the mission, that night the enemy attacked, trapping Etchberger and his team at the ledge of the mountain.

“The enemy lobbed down grenade after grenade, hour after hour. Dick and his men would grab the grenades and throw them back or kick them town down into the valley below, but the grenades kept coming,” Obama said today, “One airman was killed and then another; a third airman was wounded, then another. Eventually, Dick was the only man standing.”

The president noted that as a technician Etchberger had no formal combat training and had only recently been issued a rifle.

“When the enemy started moving down the rocks, Dick fought them off. When it looked like the ledge would be overrun, he called for air strikes within yards of his own position, shaking the mountain and clearing the way for a rescue. And in the morning light, an American helicopter came into view. Richard Etchberger lived the airmen's creed -- to never leave an airmen behind, to never falter, to never fail. So as the helicopter hovered above and lowered its sling, Dick loaded his wounded men one by one, each time exposing himself to enemy fire. And when another airmen suddenly rushed forward after alluding the enemy all night, Dick loaded him, too, and finally himself. They had made it off the mountain.”

As the helicopter began to peel away a burst of gunfire erupted, and Etchberger was wounded and by the time they landed at the nearest base he had passed away.

The military restored Chief Master Sergeant Etchberger’s active duty status after his death, making him eligible to receive the highest military honor, 42 year after he was killed in action. His three sons accepted the award on his behalf today.

"Among the few who knew of Dick's actions, there was the belief that his valor warranted our nation's highest military honor, but his mission had been a secret and that's how it stayed for those many years,” the president said, “When their father's mission was finally declassified, these three sons learned something else. It turned out that their mother had known about Dick's work all along, but she had been sworn to secrecy and she kept that promise to her husband and her country all those years, not even telling her own sons. So today is also a tribute to Catherine Etchberger and the reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our military spouses make on behalf of our nation."