Sunday, September 24, 2017

Vet Earns Medal of Honor 42 Years After Classified Vietnam Mission

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.

Third Invictus Games Adaptive Sports Competition Kicks Off in Toronto

By Shannon Collins DoD News, Defense Media Activity

TORONTO, Sept. 24, 2017 — Competitors, celebrities, royalty and spectators came together here last night to kick off the 2017 Invictus Games at the sold-out Air Canada Centre here.

Inspired by the Department of Defense Warrior Games, an adaptive sports competition for wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans, Britain's Prince Harry created the Invictus Games in 2014.

The prince, who was on hand at the opening ceremony, flew Apache helicopters in Afghanistan during his military service.

"Invictus is all about the dedication of the men and women who served their countries, confronted hardship and refused to be defined by their injuries," he said last night. "Invictus is about the families and friends who face the shock of learning that their loved ones have been injured or fallen ill and then rally to support them on their journey to recovery. Above all, Invictus is about the example to the world that all service men and women, injured or not, provide providing the importance of service and duty.

"We made a great start in London in 2014," he continued. "We took it to the next level in Orlando last year, and over the next week, in this year, as we celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary, Toronto is going to put on a games that draws the attention of the world."

More than 550 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans from 17 nations will compete in 12 sporting events at the Invictus Games, including archery, track and field, cycling, golf, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball. The games run through Sept. 30.

"[There are] more competitors, more sports, more nations, more friends, more families and more people watching at home than ever before," Harry said. "With the people in this arena tonight and those watching across Canada and around the world, we have the biggest crowd Invictus has ever enjoyed. In the days ahead, I know that many of you will be experiencing Invictus for the first time. I hope you're ready for some fierce competition. I hope you're ready to see the meaning of teamwork that proves that anything is possible when we work together. I hope you're ready to see courage and determination that will inspire you to power through the challenges in your own life. I hope you're ready to see role models in action that any parent would want their children to look up to. And I hope you're ready to see lives change in front of your eyes."

Camaraderie Among Athletes

Marine Corps Sgt. Ivan Sears, co-captain of the U.S. team, said he thinks his squad will be strongest in rugby, track and field, volleyball, wheelchair basketball and swimming. The camaraderie among the athletes from the respective service branches and other countries has been good, he added.

"I visited with someone from the Netherlands for about 20 minutes this morning," said Sears, who said his favorite sport is wheelchair racing on the track. "Everybody's getting along, laughing and having a smile on their face."

His mother, Judy Pullin, said she is proud of her son and his team.

"I'm very proud of Ivan. I'm going to be the bragging momma here. He medaled four times here last year. He medaled four golds, and it was just amazing. I was definitely crying," she said. "These are all athletes. Yes, they may have a disability. They may have something physical or an invisible wound, but you've just got to be proud of them."

Medically retired Cpl. Melanie Harris of the Canadian armed forces, who is competing in compound archery and sitting volleyball, joked that the Canadian motto is "I'm not sorry."

"Canadians are known for being sorry but not sorry; however I want them to know they're always welcome back here," she said with a laugh. Harris said Canada's wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball will be among the Canadian team's best events.

"It's going to be a great competition," she said. "We're going to do great. We will bring some gold home. We don't mind sharing, too, but whoever wins wins, [and] we're going to fight for it."

Harris said her teammates have been taking care of each other and are like family. "We're all there for each other," she added.

Medically retired Lance Cpl. Dennis Resell of Denmark's special operations forces is competing in archery and sitting volleyball. He said he has confidence in his team as well. "We're going to do great. You can't beat the Vikings," he said. "Team Denmark's biggest strengths are definitely our team spirit and our brotherhood."

Resell said he enjoys the camaraderie among the athletes and had been looking forward to the opening ceremony. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said. "Walking in there, people cheering -- it's going to be great."

The Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces from Ottawa and the Royal Regiment Band from Quebec performed as the 550-plus competitors from the 17 participating countries entered the arena. Thailey Roberge of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Elliot Miville-Deschenes of Montreal represented the youth of Canada and hosted the opening ceremonies. They sang "O Canada," the Canadian national anthem, and then "Under One Sky" to celebrate the Invictus Games Flag Tour.

As Laura Wright sang the official 2017 Invictus Games song, "Invincible," more than 200 members of the Canadian Military Wives National Choir joined her. Canadian Rangers marched in bearing the Invictus Games flag and raised it high.

Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan performed "I Will Remember You" and then spoke of the Lighting of the Flame ceremony, which began in Kabul, Afghanistan. The flame passed from Afghan security forces veteran Maj. Ahmad Shahh to retired Canadian Master Cpl. Jody Mitic, official ambassador of the Toronto Games.

Michael Burns, CEO of the Invictus Games 2017 organizing committee, said the committee is leveraging most of the infrastructure used in the Pan American Games here in 2015.

"We will be up in Scarborough for swimming. Tomorrow, we will be up at York University at their brand new stadium for athletics. The old Maple Leaf Gardens will be a massive hub of activity. We drained the reflective pool at the Nathan Phillips Square to host wheelchair tennis. We're hosting archery at Fort York, and we're using Hyde Park for cycling," Burns said. "This city is going to be lit up over the next eight days. There isn't anywhere you're going to be able to turn and not see a banner or sign or sport competition or the competitors throughout the city enjoying themselves."

He said the closing ceremony and almost every ticketed sporting competition has sold out.

"Over the next eight days, you will be moved; you will be inspired. You will be entertained. You will see things on the playing field you have never seen before," he said. "These games aren't about the finish line. These games are all about making it to the starting line. The men and women who will be competing in these games -- talk to any one of them -- they'll tell you that they have been injured as a result of their service. Any one of them has been tested many, many times by faith throughout their careers, and yet they remain undefeated, undiminished, proudly and distinctly unconquered."

Words of Encouragement

"On behalf of my husband and our entire country, I want to thank you and your families for all you have sacrificed to keep us safe," she said to the roughly 100 athletes. "I want to wish you good luck, though I know you won't need it in these games. Take that fighting spirit that I know you have and bring home the gold."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also offered encouragement to the Invictus Games athletes. "You're not just here to inspire, you're here to win," he said. "Through your athleticism, through your drive and your competitive spirit, you are showing the world that illness and injury can actually be a source of tremendous strength."

Actor Mike Myers, Invictus Games 2017 ambassador, said he supports the Invictus Games because they provide the adaptive athletes the ability for rehabilitation, personal achievement and recovery through the power of sports.

"I come from a military family," he said. "My mother, who passed away in March, was in the Royal Air Force. She's one of those ladies you see in World War II movies. She would move the fighters toward the incoming Luftwaffe bandits -- that's what my mom would do.

"My father was a royal engineer in the British army and built bridges, cleared minefields," he continued. "He often recited the unofficial motto of the Royal Engineers: 'We do the impossible immediately. Miracles take a little longer.' Mostly, my father spoke about the unbreakable brotherhood of those who served. He remembered the name of every single British soldier he served with, and for every name, [he had] a hilarious story."

"Those that serve our country deserve our utmost respect, and all the [veterans] in the Invictus Games have my deepest respect, admiration and gratitude from the bottom of my heart," he said, his voice shaking with emotion. "Thank you very much. What I do for a living is silly, and without brave people who keep us safe, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. The Invictus competitors represent the very best of the human spirit, and I know my mother and father would have wanted me to support that spirit, the competitors and the thousands of wounded warriors around the world. I want to thank all the competitors in the Invictus Games, all of the soldiers currently serving and all of the family members and caregivers. The caregivers are the unsung heroes of service to this country and to all countries. Thank you for your service."

Helping in Recovery

Harry said he created Invictus to help veterans in their recovery. "In a world where so many have reasons to feel cynical and apathetic," he said, "I wanted to find a way for veterans to be a beacon of light and show us all that we have a role to play, that we all win when we respect our friends, neighbors and communities. That's why we created Invictus -- not only to help veterans recover from their physical and mental wounds, but also to inspire people to follow their example of resilience, optimism and service in their own lives."

As the prince closed the ceremony, he spoke directly to the competitors. "For the next week, we entrust you with the Invictus spirit. You have all come such a long way," he said. "Some of you have cheated death and have come back stronger than before. Some of you have overcome emotional challenges that until very recent years would have seen you written off and ignored. And now you are here, on the world stage, flags on your chest, representing your countries again, supporting your teammates and looking up into these stands and into the eyes of your families and friends.

"You are all winners," Harry said to the competitors. "Please don't forget to love every second of it. Don't forget about our friends who didn't come home from the battlefield. Don't forget those at home who still need our support and don't forget you are proving to the world that anything is possible. You are Invictus. Let's get started."

Utah Airmen Work to Restore Communications in Virgin Islands

By Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Gorman, Wisconsin Air National Guard

ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sept. 24, 2017 — Six airmen assigned to the Joint Incident Site Communications Capability team of the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Air Refueling Wing based in Salt Lake City are deployed here to provide critical communications in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The airmen deployed Sept. 7 and established a base of operations at the Leonard B. Francis Armory, rapidly setting up the antenna systems required to provide the Tactical Operations Center with a wide array of communications capabilities.

"When we first arrived in St. Thomas, all cell services, local phone lines and internet services were down," said Air Force 2nd Lt. Tyler Olsen, JISCC officer in charge. "We were able to establish voice and data for the first time on the island since Hurricane Irma had wiped them out. It was their first opportunity to communicate with the outside world."

JISCC capabilities are designed to augment civilian first responders and bridge the communications gap between military and civilian agencies. Each team is equipped to establish remote internet, telephone and radio capabilities at locations with a damaged or nonexistent communications infrastructure.

The 151st ARW's JISCC is one of 42 such teams distributed throughout the Air National Guard, 15 of which are mobilized to support hurricane-damaged regions in Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Don Johnson, vice chairman of the Air Guard's JISCC working group, said recent events represent a historic activation of the domestic operations asset.

"While JISCC teams are routinely called upon to support regional incidents and events benefiting from their unique capabilities, the recent chain of hurricanes impacting the southeastern U.S. has resulted in the largest mobilization of JISCC assets since first fielded to the ANG," he said.

Further Impact

The Virgin Islands were further affected Sept. 19 by Hurricane Maria. The Utah JISCC members were forced to disassemble their equipment in advance of the storm and re-establish communications in its wake. But Air Force Airman 1st Class David Zham, newest member of the Utah JISCC team, said he considers that to be little more than an interruption.

"We had to protect our equipment in order to resume service as soon as it was over," said he explained. "We were able to bounce right back, so our mission never stopped. It was merely put on pause."

With the already-extensive damage made worse by the passing of Hurricane Maria, additional JISCC teams are being mobilized to meet the continued requirements for emergency communications support to the region.

"Hurricane Irma gave us vital insight into how important communications can be in a large-scale disaster," Olsen said. "I believe the JISCC will be an integral component of domestic operations from here on into the foreseeable future."