Obama Awards Medal of Honor to Vietnam Vet Who Saved Dozens of Lives

Charles Kettles helped embattled soldiers with no aerial support to protect him.

“Couldn't make this up. This is like a bad "Rambo" movie, right? You're listening to this, you can't believe it,” Obama said in describing Kettles’ heroics 49 years ago.

Kettles, 86, received the military’s highest honor at the White House today for leading helicopter operations in May 1967 to rescue U.S. soldiers trapped in an ambush near Duc Pho, Republic of Vietnam. He directed several trips to the landing zone under heavy enemy fire, according to the U.S. Army.

While evacuating the wounded, Kettles learned that eight soldiers were stranded and unable to get to the helicopters in time. He returned to help them, this time without the protection of aerial support.

“In a lot of ways, Chuck Kettles is America,” the president said. “And to the dozens of American soldiers that he saved in Vietnam half a century ago, Chuck is the reason they lived and came home and had children and grandchildren, entire family trees made possible by the actions of this one man.”

Kettles’ actions saved the lives of 40 soldiers and four members of his own crew that day.

“And that's one more reason this story is quintessentially American. Looking out for one another. The belief that nobody should be left behind,” the president continued. “This shouldn't just be a creed for our soldiers. This should be a creed for all of us.”

Obama described Kettles’ actions that day as the Army colonel led the helicopter to the landing zone, picking up soldiers and supplies as “mortar rounds came screaming after them.”

He returned to the valley again to rescue more men. On his way back, the helicopter was struck by machine gun bullets and fuel poured out the side. When he brought the soldiers back to safety, Kettles found a new chopper and went back for a third time to pick up 44 Americans who were still pinned down in the river bed.

And as the helicopter took off, he learned that not all the men were accounted for; eight soldiers had missed the chopper because they were providing cover for the others.

“Chuck came to the same conclusion: ‘If we left them for ten minutes,’ he said, ‘They would be POWs or dead.’ A soldier who was there said, ‘That day, Major Kettles became our John Wayne,’” the president said.

“With all due respect to John Wayne, he couldn't do what Chuck Kettles did. He broke off from formation, took a steep, sharp, descending turn back toward the valley, this time, with no aerial or artillery support, a lone helicopter heading back in.”

Obama also tweeted a video of the Vietnam War veteran, who is from Ypsilanti, Michigan, before the ceremony.

“It’s not just me. I’m just leading the pack. Making the decisions, which some may not have liked them. I don’t know,” Kettles says in the video. “But those behind me were obliged to follow and they did. They did their job. Above and beyond. So, the medal is not mine, it’s theirs.”

Kettles thanked the president for the honor, adding that there were 74 helicopter crew members involved in the operations that day. “The whole mission is worth it simply if nothing else, to get those 44 men out of there,” Kettles said after the ceremony. “It was successful in that regard, to minimize the losses, and that’s the only thing that really matters out of all the detail.”

“Of course, Chuck says, ‘All this attention is a lot of hubbub, but I'll survive.’ Chuck, you survived much worse than this ceremony,” Obama joked.

The Medal of Honor is given to members of the Armed Forces who go “above and beyond the call of duty,” and exhibit “great personal bravery or self-sacrifice,” according to a White House news release. Kettles, who enlisted in 1953, served as a flight commander in the 176th Aviation Company (Airmobile) (Light), 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, Americal Division.