Obama Awards Chief Etchberger The Medal Of Honor

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Tuesday President Obama awarded Chief Master Sergeant Richard L. Etchberger of the U.S. Air Force the Medal of Honor, posthumously, for conspicuous gallantry. Etchberger was recognized for his heroic actions in combat on March 11, 1968, in Laos.

Here is a portion of the transcript:

Dick Etchberger was a radar technician and he had been hand-picked for a secret assignment. With a small team of men, he served at the summit of one of the tallest mountains in Laos -— more than a mile high, literally above the clouds. They manned a tiny radar station, guiding American pilots in the air campaign against North Vietnam.

Dick and his crew believed they could help turn the tide of the war, perhaps even end it. And that’s why North Vietnamese forces were determined to shut it down. They sent their planes to strafe the Americans as they worked. They moved in their troops. And eventually, Dick and his team could look through their binoculars and see that their mountain was surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese troops.

Dick and his crew at that point had a decision to make —- ask to be evacuated or continue the mission for another day. They believed that no one could possibly scale the mountain’s steep cliffs. And they believed in their work. So they stayed. They continued their mission.

There were 19 Americans on the mountain that evening. When their shift was over, Dick and his four men moved down to a small, rocky ledge on a safer side of the mountain. And then, during the night, the enemy attacked. Somehow, fighters scaled the cliffs and overran the summit. Down the side of the mountain, Dick and his men were now trapped on that ledge.

The enemy lobbed down grenade after grenade, hour after hour. Dick and his men would grab those grenades and throw them back, or kick them into the valley below. But the grenades kept coming. One airman was killed, and then another. A third airman was wounded, and then another. Eventually, Dick was the only man standing.

As a technician, he had no formal combat training. In fact, he had only recently been issued a rifle. But Dick Etchberger was the very definition of an NCO —- a leader determined to take care of his men. When the enemy started moving down the rocks, Dick fought them off. When it looked like the ledge would be overrun, he called for air strikes, within yards of his own position, shaking the mountain and clearing the way for a rescue. And in the morning light, an American helicopter came into view.

Richard Etchberger lived the Airman’s Creed —- to never leave an airman behind, to never falter, to never fail. So as the helicopter hovered above and lowered its sling, Dick loaded his wounded men, one by one, each time exposing himself to enemy fire. And when another airman suddenly rushed forward after eluding the enemy all night, Dick loaded him, too —- and finally, himself. They had made it off the mountain.

That’s when it happened. The helicopter began to peel away. A burst of gunfire erupted below. Dick was wounded. And by the time they landed at the nearest base, he was gone.

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

Jacob Wheeler

In addition to shooting videos for The UpTake, Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at the progressive political magazine In These Times, publishes the Glen Arbor Sun in his native Michigan, and authored "Between Light and Shadow," a recent book about the Guatemalan adoption industry. Wheeler's stories have appeared in such magazines as the Utne Reader, Earth Island Journal, Rotarian and Teaching Tolerance magazine, and newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor. He speaks fluent Spanish, German and Danish.

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