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~Susan Wittig Albert

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No Boundaries for Heroism

Medal of Honor to be Awarded for Secret War Heroics 42 Years Ago

Richard Etchberger’s heroics during the Vietnam War are only now being acknowledged by the U.S. military due to the fact that the Air Force sergeant wasn’t supposed to be in the country where his death took place.

Richard Etchberger (US Air Force)

Etchberger was part of a secret mission in Laos, a country the U.S. was not at war with during the conflict in neighboring Vietnam. But in order to target bombing missions against the North Vietnamese, the U.S. Air Force deployed a small group of men to a remote mountain in Laos just 120 miles from Hanoi in North Vietnam to establish a radar station. 

The location, a steep 5,500-foot ridge, made it a tough target to attack, especially with U.S. bombing missions attempting to push the North Vietnamese back. The station's purpose -- to guide U.S. bomber crews on their missions over North Vietnam and parts of Laos that were under communist control.  They knew they would eventually be discovered, though. The North Vietnamese would realize when we were bombing them through overcast skies that it was coming from somewhere and it was just a matter of time. 

From November 1967 to March 1968, Lima Site 85 — nicknamed Commando Club — directed 507 strike missions in North Vietnam and Laos, 27 percent of all the strike missions in those two areas.  It was there that Etchberger and eighteen other Americans came under attack in March 1968 from 3,000 North Vietnamese soldiers who had scaled steep cliffs to surround them in order to take out the radar station. American helicopters were sent in to evacuate the few Air Force personnel, but by then eight Americans had been killed and several more wounded.  It is considered by some the deadliest ground attack against Air Force troops in the entire Vietnam era. 

Refusing to leave until everyone else was on board, the sergeant deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire in order to place his surviving wounded comrades in the rescue slings permitting them to be airlifted to safety.  Those who survived say Etchberger saved at least four airmen before he rushed onto the helicopter himself. But moments later, an armor-piercing round ripped through the helicopter’s underbelly, hitting Etchberger. He bled to death en route to an air base in Thailand.

Etchberger was nominated for the Medal of Honor shortly after his death, but President Lyndon Johnson refused to posthumously grant him the military’s highest honor. Johnson was afraid the publicity would draw attention to the secret mission and the United States’ violating the sovereignty of Laotian territory. Instead, Etchberger was given the Air Force Cross.

Forty-two years later, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley recommended Etchberger’s Air Force Cross be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Barack Obama agreed with Conley’s recommendation, and a special ceremony will be held at the White House on September 21 to officially award the medal to Etchberger’s three sons.

-Noel Brinkerhoff

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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