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Obama Awards Highest Military Honor to Vietnam Veteran After 50 Years

  • Cindy Saine

The Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force given to an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States, is shown in this undated photo.

The Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force given to an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States, is shown in this undated photo.

It took 50 years, but Vietnam War veteran Charles Kettles was finally awarded the military’s highest honor at the White House Monday for repeated acts of heroism that saved the lives of 44 people.

In bestowing the Medal of Honor, President Barack Obama said everyone who knows “Chuck” Kettles agrees there is no one who deserves it more than he does. No one disagrees, Obama said, except for perhaps Kettles himself, who said this “seems like a hell of a fuss over something that happened 50 years ago.”

Speaking at a ceremony in the East Room, the president described what happened on May 15th, 1967. U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne were battling hundreds of heavily armed North Vietnamese in a rural riverbed. The U.S. forces were badly outnumbered and pinned down. They needed support, helicopters to get the wounded out and bring more soldiers into the fight.

Major Kettles was a helicopter pilot. He volunteered to go and pick up wounded soldiers, under withering fire, three separate times. The last time, he was already airborne after picking up five soldiers, when he was told eight men had not made it aboard. So he made the decision to make a steep, sharp turn and to land once again – away from his formation and under heavy fire. The eight soldiers climbed aboard, as mortar fire ripped into his windshield and hit the tail of the helicopter. One soldier fell off, and was hanging on to the skid as Kettle flew all 13 soldiers to safety.

President Barack Obama points after presenting the Medal of Honor to retired Lt. Col. Charles Kettles of Michigan during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 18, 2016.

President Barack Obama points after presenting the Medal of Honor to retired Lt. Col. Charles Kettles of Michigan during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 18, 2016.

Obama said Kettle’s story of incredible bravery in the face of almost certain death or capture is “like a bad Rambo movie.”

Looking Out For Each Other

The president went on to say Kettles’ 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.”

Obama said that after a tough couple of weeks, it was wonderful to celebrate Kettles’ inspirational story.

Eight of Kettles 10 children and several of the men he saved attended the ceremony. Obama said that to the dozens of American soldiers he saved in Vietnam half a century ago, Kettles is the reason they lived and came home and had children and grandchildren, adding “entire family trees made possible by the actions of this one man.”

Speaking on a U.S. Army video, Kettles said: "I didn't do it by myself. There were some 74 pilots and crew members involved in this whole mission that day, so it's not just me," he said. "The medal is not mine. It's theirs."

The president said Kettle’s heroism was recognized at the time and he was awarded the Army’s second-highest medal for gallantry -– the Distinguished Service Cross. But there were several people, including Kettle’s son Mike and Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell from Kettle’s home state of Michigan, who believed he deserved an upgrade, and fought for it for five years. Obama said sometimes, it takes time to do the right thing:

“It might take time, but having failed to give our veterans who fought in Vietnam the full measure of thanks and respect that they had earned, we acknowledged that our failure to do so was a shame," he said. "We resolve that it will never happen again. It can take time, but old adversaries can find peace. Thanks to the leadership of so many Vietnam vets who had the courage to rebuild ties, I was able to go to Vietnam recently and see a people as enthusiastic about America as probably any place in the world - crowds lining the streets.”

Obama visited Vietnam in May and lifted a nearly five-decades-old arms embargo on the former war-time enemy.

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