President Barack Obama awarded on Tuesday a posthumous Medal of Honor to U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Richard "Dick" L. Etchberger, who died heroically during combat in Laos over four decades ago.
Chief Etchberger, a radio technician, had been handpicked for a top secret assignment at the summit of one of the tallest mountains in Laos during the Vietnam War. The details of his death only became unclassified about 20 years ago.
President Obama retold the events that earned Etchberger a Medal of Honor in front of an audience at the White House, which included Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, Etchberger's family members, members of Congress, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and members of the Medal of Honor Society.
On March 11, 1968, the mountain-top radio base where Etchberger was stationed was surrounded and assailed by enemy fire until all of his fellow airmen were either killed or wounded. "Eventually Dick was the only man standing," the president said.
"Of those 19 men on the mountain, only seven made it alive, and three of them owed their lives to Dick Etchberger," Obama said, adding that "as a technician, [Etchberger] had no formal combat training ... in fact, he had only just been issued a rifle."
Etchberger put himself in the line of fire to help three of his injured comrades get airlifted to safety. After he finally got himself in the rescue sling, he was wounded by a burst of enemy gunfire, and died by the time the helicopter landed.
Obama was emphatic that Etchberger displayed immeasurable courage and uncommon valor and went above and beyond the call of duty -- requirements for Medal of Honor recipients -- and that he lived the Airman's code, "to never leave an airman behind, to never falter, to never fail."
"Our nation endures because there are patriots like Chief Master Sergeant Richard Etchberger -- and our troops who are serving as we speak -- who love this nation and defend it," the president said. "Their legacy lives on because their families and fellow citizens preserve it. And as Americans, we remain worthy of their example only so long as we honor it -- not merely with the medals that we present, but by remaining true to the values and freedoms for which they fight."
During the ceremony, Obama also acknowledged all Vietnam veterans who "served with dedication and courage, but all too often were shunned when they got home, which was a disgrace and should never happen again."
Etchberger's sons, Cory Etchberger, Richard Etchberger and Steve Wilson, joined Obama at the White House to commemorate their father's service and received the award on his behalf.
TEXT OF 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 Sergeant 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 Sergeant Richard L. Etchberger distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism on March 11, 1968, in the country of Laos, while assigned a Ground Radar Superintendent, Detachment 1, 1043d Radar Evaluation 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 an 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 upon himself and the United States Air Force.