Tuesday, September 21, 2010

President Presents Posthumous Medal of Honor to Hero’s Sons

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2010 – President Barack Obama today presented the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry to the family of an Air Force chief master sergeant killed in action 42 years ago in Laos.

“Today, we present the Medal of Honor to an American who displayed such gallantry more than four decades ago: Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger,” the president said at a White House ceremony. “This medal reflects the gratitude of an entire nation.”

Etchberger’s brother, Robert, and sons, Cory Etchberger, Richard Etchberger and Steve Wilson, attended the ceremony.

The president detailed Etchberger’s actions as he fought through the night of March 11, 1968, holding off the enemy, calling in air strikes and loading three fellow servicemembers into an evacuation helicopter before he was shot by enemy forces who overran his worksite - a secret radar installation manned by Air Force technicians disguised as civilians.

Lima Site 85, set above the clouds on a steep mountaintop in nominally neutral Laos housed a radio transmitter – later upgraded to a radar installation - dedicated to directing U.S. air-to-ground bombing in North Vietnam from 1966 to 1968. The battle at Lima Site 85 resulted in the largest Air Force ground combat loss of the Vietnam War.

“Of those 19 men on the mountain that night, only seven made it out alive,” Obama said. “Three of them owed their lives to the actions of Dick Etchberger.”

During a “small, private” Pentagon ceremony in the winter of 1968, Etchberger’s wife, Catherine, and sons were presented with an Air Force Cross, Obama said, but public awareness of Etchberger’s actions didn’t occur until the Air Force declassified his mission in 1986.

“That’s when they learned the truth: that their father had given his life, not in Vietnam, but in neighboring Laos,” the president said. “That’s when they began to learn the true measure of their father’s heroism.”

Obama said when their father’s mission was declassified, Etchberger’s sons learned that their mother had known the whole story all along, but had been sworn to secrecy.

“She kept that promise, to her husband and her country, all those years, not even telling her own sons,” the president said. “So today is also a tribute to Catherine Etchberger, and a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our military spouses make on behalf of our nation.

“Sadly, Dick’s wife, Catherine, did not live to see this moment. But Steve, Richard and Cory, today your nation finally acknowledges, and fully honors, your father’s bravery,” Obama continued, “because even though it’s 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.”

Obama then presented the cased award to Etchberger’s sons. Etchberger became only the 14th airman to receive the Medal of Honor for actions during the Vietnam War, and only the third enlisted airmen so honored.

Attendees also included First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley, other leaders of the armed forces, members of Congress, previous Medal of Honor recipients and friends of the Etchberger family to honor the man his son Cory has described as “an ordinary man who found himself in an extraordinary circumstance.”

Here is the text of Etchberger’s Medal of Honor citation:

The president of the United States of America, authorized by act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded, in the name of the Congress, the Medal of Honor to Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger, United States Air Force, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty.

Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism on March 11, 1968, in the country of Laos. While assigned as Ground Radar Superintendent, Detachment 1, 1043rd Radar Evacuation Squadron. On that day, Chief Etchberger and his team of technicians were manning a top-secret defensive position at Lima Site 85 when the base was overrun by an enemy ground force. Receiving sustained and withering heavy artillery attacks directly upon his unit’s position, Chief Etchberger’s entire crew lay dead or severely wounded. Despite having received little or no combat training, Chief Etchberger single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16, while simultaneously directing air strikes into the area and calling for air rescue.

Because of his fierce defense and heroic and selfless actions, he was able to deny the enemy access to his position and save the lives of his remaining crew. With the arrival of the rescue aircraft, Chief Etchberger without hesitation repeatedly and deliberately risked his own life, exposing himself to heavy enemy fire, in order to place three surviving wounded comrades into rescue slings hanging from the hovering helicopter waiting to airlift them to safety. With his remaining crew safely aboard, Chief Etchberger finally climbed into the evacuation sling himself, only to be fatally wounded by enemy ground fire as he was being raised into the aircraft.

Chief Etchberger’s bravery and determination in the face of persistent enemy fire and overwhelming odds are in keeping with the highest standards of performance and traditions of military service. Chief Etchberger’s gallantry, self-sacrifice, and profound concern for his fellow men, at risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, reflect the highest credit on himself and the United States Air Force.

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