Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to Air Force service member for Laos action
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 11:44 PM
At a secret military installation on a mountain top in Laos more than 40 years ago, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger fought to save the lives of three wounded soldiers, only to be fatally wounded as the helicopter that carried his men to safety came under fire as it lifted off.
On Tuesday, President Obama awarded Etchberger the Medal of Honor for his "conspicuous gallantry" on the morning of March 11, 1968, at that "small base above the clouds." His three sons received the nation's highest military honor on their father's behalf.
"Although it's been 42 years, it's never too late to do the right thing," Obama told several hundred of Etchberger's friends, military comrades, family members and senior administration officials who had gathered in the East Room of the White House for the somber medal ceremony.
Obama used the occasion to remind the nation of the sacrifices being made today by members of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, as well as by their families.
He also acknowledged the bitterness that greeted many U.S. service members returning from Southeast Asia decades ago, a lack of gratitude Obama called "a disgrace that must never happen again."
The bravery displayed by Etchberger on the Laotian mountain top almost went unrecognized, given the secrecy surrounding U.S. military operations in that country.
Cory Etchberger was 9 when he and his mother were summoned to the Pentagon to be told that his father was a hero and that he had died in an overseas war - in Vietnam, Cory assumed.
Not until decades later did he and his brothers, Richard Etchberger and Steve Wilson, learn that their father had died in the country next door to Vietnam. The U.S. military project in Laos had been declassified, and the missions of those like Etchberger who fought and died there could finally be acknowledged.
Before a rapt audience, Obama told Etchberger's story beneath the East Room chandeliers.
A radar technician, Etchberger had had little formal military training when he was posted to a radar station atop the highest peak in Laos. The strategic site became a target of North Vietnamese forces, which massed beneath Etchberger's position in early March 1968.
Through binoculars, Etchberger, one of 19 service members stationed at the radar post, could see large numbers of North Vietnamese soldiers staging for an attack. Rather than evacuate, however, he decided to remain in place, unsure whether the North Vietnamese could mount a quick strike up the sides of cliffs.
The next day the attack came, defying Etchberger's expectations. He and three of his men found themselves trapped on a ledge, where they came under fierce grenade attack. His men were wounded, and Etchberger, despite his scant training, fought back with a rifle.
At dawn, a U.S. military helicopter arrived to evacuate the little group. Etchberger loaded the wounded into rescue slings before placing himself in one for the ride to safety. But a last-minute burst of ground fire struck him, causing fatal injuries.
The three service members he protected from the attacking forces - "single-handedly," in the words of the Medal of Honor citation - all survived. One of them attended the White House ceremony.
"The greatest honor to Dick Etchberger is the spirit we feel here today," Obama said.