WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest military honor to a Vietnam War veteran on Monday, stressing that the story of retired Lt. Col. Charles Kettles' bravery nearly 50 years ago serves as great inspiration at a time when Americans could use some.
Kettles led helicopter flights carrying reinforcements to U.S. soldiers and evacuated the wounded after they were ambushed in combat operations near Duc Pho in May 1967. Kettles, now 86, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, helped rescue more than 40 soldiers.
Obama said the story that led to the Medal of Honor was quintessentially American because Kettles showed the importance of looking out for others and how nobody should be left behind.
"This shouldn't just be a creed for our soldiers. This should be a creed for all of us," Obama said.
Obama noted during the ceremony that after the shooting deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the nation has had "let's face it, a couple of tough weeks."
"For us to remember the goodness and decency of the American people in a way that we can all look out for each other even when times are tough, even when the odds are against us, what a wonderful inspiration, what a great gift for us to be able to celebrate something like this," Obama said.
Obama told how Kettles repeatedly returned to a landing zone under heavy fire. During the final evacuation effort, he was advised that eight soldiers who were providing cover for others had been unable to reach the helicopters, so he returned without benefit of artillery or tactical aircraft support.
Obama recounted how Kettles' helicopter at that point was the only target the enemy had to account for, and as it landed, mortar rounds shattered the windshield and damaged the main rotor blade. Small arms and machine gun fire also raked the helicopter. Badly damaged, and now 600 pounds overweight from carrying 13 people, Kettles hopped and skipped the craft across the ground to pick up enough speed for takeoff.
Obama said the instant the helicopter became airborne another mortar round hit the tail, causing it to fishtail violently and knocking a solider overboard. That soldier managed to hold onto a skid as Kettles flew them all to safety.
"I couldn't make this stuff up," Obama joked as he recalled the event with amazement. "This is like a bad Rambo movie. You're listening to this, you can't believe it."
But Obama quickly made clear he did believe it. "Entire family trees made possible by the actions of this one man," the president said.
Kettles had already received a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day, but a retired social worker, Bill Vollano, interviewed him for a history project sponsored by the local Rotary Club. Vollano came away believing that an upgrade was warranted. After a five-year effort, the Pentagon agreed and Congress subsequently passed legislation waiving a time limitation for the award, and paving the way for Obama's action.
Obama called Kettles humble, describing how the Army veteran had noted there were some 74 pilots and crew members serving in that mission. Obama said that Kettles had called the attention "a lot of hubbub, but I'll survive."
"Let me say this hubbub is richly and roundly deserved," Obama said.
Obama also used the ceremony to credit Vietnam vets, saying the nation failed to give them the full thanks and respect they had earned. He said Vietnam veterans had the courage to help the U.S. rebuild ties with an old adversary, which allowed him to recently visit that country.
"And we're able to say that, on a whole lot of issues, Vietnam and the United States are now partners," Obama said.