By Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti
I’ve had a lot of memorable experiences during my 26 years in Air Force uniform.
Way, way up there was attending today’s White House ceremony in which President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to the late Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger. Or, really, to his survivors: stepson Steve Wilson, and sons Rich and Cory.
The chief, 35, received the nation’s top medal for bravery for actions he took after enemy special operations forces overran a clandestine U.S. radar site that he helped operate in Laos. He died March 11, 1968, after being shot in a rescue helicopter following an overnight battle on the mountain where he and others in project Heavy Green aided the U.S. bombing campaign of North Vietnam.
You don’t get the Medal of Honor for being killed, though, and Chief Etchberger didn’t get his for dying. He received it for repeatedly putting his own life at risk while protecting fellow Airmen.
One of those who survived, retired Tech Sgt. John Daniel, was in the audience today. He’s 71 now and has a leg shorter than the other due to his injuries, but said he wouldn’t have even made it to age 30 without Chief Etchberger’s help. What did he do? At first, the Hamburg, Pa., native used a handheld radio to request air rescue and direct air strikes on the compound. The bombing started within minutes; the rescue had to wait until daylight.
In between bombing runs, the enemy spotted the chief and other men huddled on a ledge under a rock overhang and attacked them with hand grenades, rockets and mortars. Two men were killed. Two others were seriously wounded.
After daylight, the chief held off the enemy with M-16 gunfire when a CIA-operated Air America rescue helicopter arrived in the morning. He exposed himself to heavy fire while he helped the two injured Airmen onto a rescue sling dangling from the hovering aircraft.
A third Airman, who had been playing dead nearby, dashed for the helicopter. Chief Etchberger helped him onto a sling, too, before grasping it himself and heading for safety. Or so he must have thought. He made it aboard the aircraft before being felled by a bullet that smashed through the chopper floor and into his body. He bled to death on the flight to Thailand.
Chief Etchberger and two fellow Airmen were killed outright, while the bodies of 11 others were never recovered following the clash. It was the greatest loss of Air Force ground personnel in the Vietnam War.
The chief, who would now be 77, is the 60th Airman to receive the Medal of Honor, including those who served before the Air Force became a separate service from the Army in 1947. He is the 14th Airman recognized for actions in the Vietnam War and the seventh Air Force enlisted man to receive the medal.
He’s the first Air Force senior NCO ever to receive the Medal of Honor and the first Airman to get it in 10 years. In December 2000, the late A1C William H. Pitsenbarger, an Air Force pararescueman, received the Medal of Honor for actions he took while giving his life in 1966 in Vietnam at age 21. He had initially received the Air Force Cross, as had Chief Etchberger.
It was wonderful to hear the president use his well-publicized oratory skills to praise the all-but-forgotten actions of an Air Force hero who died long ago. I know that there are many people serving today that would do the same if put in the same regrettable circumstances.
Tears welled up in my eyes when I saw the chief’s stepson struggling to maintain his emotions as the president spoke. Steve Wilson was a 20-year-old airman in March 1968 when his stepfather was killed the same day Steve’s young bride gave birth to the couple’s first child. The chief’s wife, Kay, who died in 1994, received the news that she was a grandmother just hours before learning that she was a widow.
Possibly my favorite moment of the day, though, was seeing ponytailed Rich Etchberger, a Utah college professor, clutching the framed Medal of Honor onstage. The East Room was filled with dozens of career GIs in dress uniforms whose hair didn’t even touch their ears let alone their backs. He was grinning like the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He was grinning like the little boy he was when he lost his dad.
Chief Proietti, a reservist assigned to the Air Force Public Affairs Agency, is writing a biography about Chief Etchberger. He attended the ceremony in non-duty status.
PHOTOS: Top right- Then-Senior Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger. (Photo courtesy of the Etchberger Family)
Middle left- President Obama speaks about the life of Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger in the East Room of White House to an audience that included the senior NCO’s three sons and older brother. (Photo courtesy of Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti)
Bottom right- Rich Etchberger (r) clutches the framed Medal of Honor presented to him, half-brother Steven Wilson (l) and brother Cory Etchberger by President Obama today in memory of their father, Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger, an Air Force radar man who was killed in Laos in March 1968. (Photo courtesy of Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti)