President Barack Obama awarded America's highest military honor for valor today to a U.S. Army veteran for risking his life to save the lives of 44 fellow American soldiers a half century ago on a Vietnamese battlefield.
During a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House, Obama told the story of retired Lt. Col. Charles Kettles, who was serving as a flight commander assigned to 176th Aviation Company (Airmobile) (Light), 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, Americal Division, when a battalion-sized enemy force ambushed an outnumbered element of 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, near Duc Pho.
Kettles, then a major, led a platoon of UH-1D Huey helicopters again and again into intense enemy fire to help his fellow soldiers.
Now 86, Kettles sat looking "sharp as a tack," Obama said, describing his dress blue uniform.
Many of his fellow veterans have said that there is no one who deserves the Medal of Honor more than Kettles, Obama said.
"Many believe that, except for Chuck," Obama said. "As he says, 'This seems like a hell of a fuss over something happened 50 years ago.' Even now, Chuck is still defined by the humility that shaped him as a soldier."
But there are at least 44 former American soldiers who would disagree with Kettles' modest description of his actions on that battlefield.
Obama gave the following account of the Kettles' bravery:
"May 15, 1967, started as a hot Monday morning. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne were battling hundreds of North Vietnamese in a rural riverbed. Our men were outnumbered. They needed support fast -- helicopters to get the wounded out and get more soldiers into the fight.
"Chuck Kettles was a helo pilot and, just as he had volunteered for active duty, on this morning he volunteered his Hueys even though he knew the danger.
"They call this place 'chump valley' for a reason. Above the riverbed rose a 1,500-foot tall hill. And the enemy was dug into an extensive series of tunnels and bunkers -- the ideal spot for an ambush.
"Around 9 a.m., his company of Hueys approached that landing zone and looked down. They should have seen a stand of green trees. Instead, they saw a solid wall of green enemy tracers coming right at them. None of them had ever seen fire that intense.
"Soldiers in the helos were hit and killed before they could leap off. But under withering fire, Chuck landed his chopper and kept it there exposed so the wounded could get on and so that he could fly them back to base.
"A second time, Chuck went back into the valley. He dropped off more soldiers and supplies; picked up more wounded. Once more, machine gun bullets and mortar rounds came screaming after them. As he took off a second time, rounds pierced the arm and leg of Chuck's door gunner, Roland Scheck.
"Chuck's Huey was hit. Fuel was pouring out as he flew away. He landed, found another helicopter and flew Roland to the field hospital.
"By now, it was near evening. Back at the riverbed, 44 American soldiers were still pinned down. The air was thick with gunpowder and smelled of burning metal.
"And then they heard a faint sound. And as the sun started to set, they saw something rise over the horizon -- six American helicopters, as one of them said, 'as beautiful as could be.'
"For a third time, Chuck and his unit headed into that Hell on Earth.
"Once again, the enemy unloaded everything they had on Chuck as he landed -- small arms, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades. Soldiers ran to the helicopters. When Chuck was told all were accounted for, he took off.
"And then mid-air, his radio told him something else. Eight men had not made it aboard. They had been providing cover for the others. Those eight soldiers ran for the choppers but could only watch as they floated away.
" 'We all figured we were done for,' they said. Chuck came to the same conclusion. 'If we left them for 10 minutes,' he said, 'they'd be POWs or dead.'
"A soldier who was there said, 'That day, Maj. Kettles became our John Wayne.'
"With all due respect to John Wayne," Obama said. "He couldn't do what Chuck Kettles did.
"He broke off from formation, took a steep, sharp, descending turn back toward the valley -- this time with no aerial or artillery support.
"Chuck's Huey was the only target for the enemy to attack, and they did. Tracers lit up the sky once more. Chuck came in so hot his chopper bounced for several hundred feet before coming to a stop.
"As soon as he landed, a mortar round shattered his windshield; another hit the main rotor blade. Shrapnel tore through the cockpit and Chuck's chair.
"Those eight soldiers sprinted toward the Huey, running through the firestorm, chased by bullets.
"Chuck's helo, now badly damaged, was carrying 13 souls and was 600 pounds overweight. 'It felt,' he said, 'like flying a two and a half ton truck.'
"He couldn't hover long enough to take off. … The cabin filled with black smoke as Chuck skipped and hopped the helo across the ground to pick up enough speed to take off.
"The instant he got airborne, another mortar ripped into the tail. The Huey fishtailed violently and a soldier was thrown out of the helicopter and was hanging onto a skid as Chuck flew them to safety."
Obama joked, "You couldn't make this up. This is like a bad Rambo movie."
The Army's warrior ethos is based on a simple principle -- a soldier never leaves his comrades behind, Obama said.
"Chuck Kettles honored that creed. Not with a single act of heroism, but over and over and over," Obama said. "And because of that heroism, 44 American soldiers made it out that night. We are honored today to be joined by some of them."
Obama asked them to stand so they could be honored with applause.
Kettles was originally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor, for his heroism that day, Obama said.
But William Villano, an amateur historian, realized that was not enough of an honor after he interviewed Kettles for a history project sponsored by a local rotary club, Obama said.
Villano started a five-year mission, along with Kettles' son Mike, a retired Navy pilot, to ensure that Kettles receive the Medal of Honor.
Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, along with her husband John Dingell, "went above and beyond to pass a law to make sure that even all these years later, we could still fully recognize Chuck Kettles' heroism as we do today," Obama said.
"And that is one more reason this story is quintessentially American -- looking out for one another; the belief that nobody should be left behind," Obama said. "
"This shouldn't just be a creed for our soldiers. This should be a creed for all of us. This is a country that is never finished in its mission to improve, to do better, to learn from our history, to work to form a more perfect union.
"And at a time when, let's face it, we have had a couple of tough weeks. For us to remember the goodness and decency of the American people in a way that we can all look out for each other, even when times are tough, even when the odds are against us. What a wonderful inspiration. What a great gift for us to be able to celebrate something like this."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.