By Lea Johnson
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
A wrong was righted 42 years after Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger was killed in the country of Laos during the Vietnam war, when he posthumously received the Medal of Honor. On March 22, his name was added to the Medal of Honor memorial at Peterson Air Force Base.
Jeff Nash, Peterson Air and Space Museum deputy director, said Etchberger was superintendent of a ground radar site, Lima Site 85, in Laos in 1968. “Its mission was to provide guidance and direction for U.S. Air Force aircraft that were bombing North Vietnam,” he said.
Several factors made this mission unique, Nash said. First, due to the classified nature of the site, Etchberger and his crew were actually discharged from the Air Force and sent to the site as civilians. “They still had a military connection; it was more of a cover than anything else because of the secrecy of this site,” he said.
Second is, at the time, Laos was a neutral country. “There should not (have been) U.S. combatants in the country of Laos at this time, however there were,” Nash said.
Despite the secrecy of Lima Site 85, the Vietnamese knew about the mission and on March 11, 1968, Etchberger and his crew sustained heavy artillery attacks, followed by a ground attack. Despite having little combat training, Etchberger heroically and single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16, while simultaneously directing air strikes and calling for air rescue. While still under enemy fire, Etchberger placed his three surviving wounded comrades into the rescue slings hanging from helicopters waiting to take them to safety. Etchberger was finally able to climb into the evacuation sling himself, only to be fatally wounded by enemy fire, Nash said.
Originally, Etchberger was awarded the Air Force Cross, the highest Air Force award for valor, in a private ceremony at the Pentagon. Because the Vietnam War was still in full swing, former President Lyndon B. Johnson could not acknowledge that there were U.S. combatants in Laos, Nash said, and Etchberger’s family was told he died in a plane crash. “His wife knew what really happened and she took that to her grave,” he said.
Etchberger became the 62nd Airman awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor Sept. 21, 2010, by President Barack Obama. “The Secretary of the Air Force waived the two year limitation on nominations for the Medal of Honor because of the very unique circumstances surrounding Chief Etchberger,” Nash said.
At the ceremony rededicating the Peterson Medal of Honor Memorial, with the addition of Etchberger’s name, Col. Jeffrey Flewelling, 21st Space Wing vice commander, said, “44 years and 11 days ago, Chief Etchberger paid the ultimate price. When he defended that ground base radar site he made us all stand a little taller today.”
Etchberger, Flewelling said, personified the Airman’s creed and the promise to never leave an Airman behind.
Summarizing the comments of Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, at Etchberger’s Medal of Honor ceremony in 2010, Nash said, “Valor has no expiration date.”