WASHINGTON – At a secret military installation on a mountain top in Laos more than 40 years ago, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger fought to save the lives of three wounded soldiers, only to be fatally wounded as the helicopter that carried his men to safety came under fire as it lifted off.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama awarded Etchberger the Medal of Honor for his “conspicuous gallantry” on the morning of March 11, 1968, at that “small base above the clouds.” His three sons received the nation’s highest military honor on their father’s behalf.
“Although it’s been 42 years, it’s never too late to do the right thing,” Obama told several hundred of Etchberger’s friends, military comrades, family members and senior administration officials who had gathered in the East Room of the White House for the somber medal ceremony.
The bravery displayed by Etchberger on the Laotian mountain top almost went unrecognized, given the secrecy surrounding U.S. military operations in that country.
Cory Etchberger was 9 when he and his mother were summoned to the Pentagon to be told that his father was a hero and that he had died in an overseas war – in Vietnam, Cory assumed.
Not until decades later did he and his brothers, Richard Etchberger and Steve Wilson, learn that their father had died in the country next door to Vietnam. The U.S. military project in Laos had been declassified, and the missions of those like Etchberger who fought and died there could finally be acknowledged.