By Melanie Garunay
Today, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, to retired Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kettles.
Lt. Colonel Kettles distinguished himself in combat operations near Duc Pho, Republic of Vietnam, on May 15, 1967, where is credited with saving the lives of 40 soldiers and four of his own crew members. President Obama described Lt. Col. Kettles’ heroic acts that day:
“May 15, 1967, started as a hot Monday morning. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne were battling hundreds of heavily armed North Vietnamese in a rural riverbed. Our men were outnumbered. They needed support fast — helicopters to get the wounded out and bring more soldiers into the fight. Chuck Kettles was a helo pilot. And just as he’d volunteered for active duty, on this morning he volunteered his Hueys — even though he knew the danger …
“Around 9 a.m., his company of Hueys approached the 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 even 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.”
Then-Major Kettles returned to the riverbed in several times to retrieve his fellow soldiers, all while facing intense enemy fire and severe damage to his helicopter.
As President Obama said, Lt. Colonel Kettles’ selfless acts of repeated valor represent not only the highest traditions of our military, but also one of the fundamental values of this nation:
So the Army’s warrior ethos is based on a simple principle: A soldier never leaves his comrades behind. Chuck Kettles honored that creed –- not with a single act of heroism, but over and over and over. And because of that heroism, 44 American soldiers made it out that day — 44 …
And that’s one more reason this story is quintessentially American: Looking out for one another; the belief that nobody should be left behind. This shouldn’t just be a creed for our soldiers –- it should be a creed for all of us. This is a country that’s 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’ve had a couple of tough weeks, for us to remember the goodness and decency of the American people, and the 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.
Lt. Colonel Kettles has dedicated his Medal of Honor to the pilots and crew members serving on his team that day.
“I didn’t do it by myself. There were some 74 pilots and crew members involved in this whole mission that day … They did their job, above and beyond. So the Medal is not mine. It’s theirs.”