By Katie Lange,
Defense Media Activity
This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Many military men and women do heroic things that they can’t get credit for because they’re involved in classified missions. For one Medal of Honor recipient, he finally did get credit – 42 years after he lost his life saving others.
During the Vietnam War, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger, a 35-year-old combat support veteran with the 1043rd Radar Evaluation Squadron, was part of a covert CIA and Air Force team sent to a small radar station on top of a remote mountain in Laos. The site, called Lima Site 85, was dedicated to directing U.S. air support in North Vietnam during the early years of the war.
The mission wasn’t easy to join. Etchberger and the other airmen involved needed to be released from the Air Force and hired by Lockheed to avoid giving the perception that Laos was involved with the U.S. government in the war. The program became known as Heavy Green. When the mission was over, the airmen would be welcomed back into the Air Force.
From a mountainous jungle perch only 12 miles from North Vietnam, 40 airmen controlled hundreds of air strikes into enemy territory during the 1968 Rolling Thunder campaign.
The North Vietnamese knew the value of the site, so they made many attempts to take it out. None were successful until March 10, 1968, when they began to attack the site with heavy artillery. By nightfall, Etchberger and his off-duty team realized their sleeping quarters were vulnerable to the shelling, so they hid with their guns and survival radios on a ledge partially protected by a rocky overhang for the rest of the night.
Early the next morning, enemy commandos scaled the cliff the compound was on, killing 11 of the 19 Americans working at the site. While Etchberger’s team was initially spared, it didn’t take long for the enemy to find them and start attacking, killing two airmen and seriously injuring two others.
Since Etchberger was a radar technician, he didn’t have any formal combat training. But that didn’t stop him from picking up arms and defending their position. For hours, Etchberger single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16 rifle, all while calling for air rescue and directing air strikes that were practically right on top of him.
Once rescuers arrived, Etchberger risked his own life several times, running through heavy fire to put three of his wounded comrades into rescue slings hanging from the hovering rescue helicopter. But when he finally climbed into the sling himself and was lifted to the chopper, he was shot by enemy ground fire. He didn’t survive the flight.
Essentially, he gave his own life to save the lives of his remaining crew and keep the enemy out.
For his actions, Etchberger was secretly awarded the Air Force Cross, since details of the mission were classified until the mid-1980s. Etchberger’s wife, Catherine, who accepted the honor on his behalf, was told the real story of what happened to her husband but was sworn to secrecy – a secret she kept for the rest of her life.
Her personal sacrifice wasn’t known until Sept. 21, 2010, when Etchberger’s three sons received the Medal of Honor in their father’s name.
“She kept that promise, to her husband and her country, all those years, not even telling her own sons,” President Barack Obama said of Catherine’s secret. “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.”
Etchberger was the first E-9 to be awarded the medal, since E-8 and E-9 weren’t created as pay grades until 1958.