By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (July 19, 2016) -- "Of all the details of this mission on the table, saving the 44 men is the only thing that matters," said retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Kettles, the most recent recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Kettles was inducted into the Pentagon's "Hall of Heroes," on Tuesday, July 19. During the induction ceremony, Kettles was joined by several hundred others, including Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Daniel B. Allyn and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey.
Nearly 50 years ago, on May 15, 1967, Kettles led a team of helicopters into the jungles of Vietnam under heavy enemy fire to rescue Soldiers from an enemy engagement where they had been severely overmatched by enemy combatants.
Later that day, just when everyone expected that the rescue operations were over, they learned that eight more Soldiers remained behind.
"Charles didn't hesitate, he immediately broke off, passed flight lead to another aircraft, and returned for a fourth landing into that landing zone, to bring everybody home," recounted Allyn.
"Kettles once again vanquished his fears, bouncing several hundred feet into that landing zone. There, the enemy was able to concentrate its efforts on Kettle's single aircraft. Smoke billowed inside, the aircraft lurched from left to right, but somehow, some way, he was able to fly it, coax it, will it out of that landing zone."
"Lt. Col. Kettles demonstrated his commitment and deep-seated loyalty to all those men, and our entire nation, by his actions that day. He did not quit. He refused to leave any Soldier behind," Allyn said.
In all, the total rescue operations involved some 74 helicopter crewmembers who ended up saving the lives of 44 Soldiers.
"It is fitting that we acknowledge and share the honor with the 74 helicopter crewmembers who were involved in the total mission on that date," Kettles said. "It belongs to them, who, with their deep regard for their fellow Soldiers, minimized the losses that day."
A plaque bearing Kettles name will soon join those of other Medal of Honor recipients that line the walls of the Hall of Heroes, commemorating his having received the Medal of Honor for his action back in Vietnam. But across the river, in Washington, D.C., there is another wall with some 58,000 names engraved on it.
"Every name represents great loss for a family and our nation," Carter said.
The names of the 44 men Kettles was credited with helping save are not on that wall, however, because he fearlessly led the team that ensured those men got home from battle that day, Carter said.
"How many Thanksgiving tables have had an extra chair through the years because of his actions?" Carter asked. "How many weddings, childbirths and graduations were made possible because Maj. Kettles and his crew returned again and again to the hot landing zone in the Song Tra Cau riverbed?"
Nobody but Kettles knows exactly what he was thinking that day in Vietnam or what he expected to happen exactly, Carter said. But Carter believes he knows what motivated Kettles. It's the same thing that motivates all good Soldiers.
"Duty, honor, country and the deeply held conviction that we will never leave a Soldier, sailor, airman or marine behind," Carter said. "For many American service members in harm's way, the first indication they would see their family again was the sound of helicopter blades beating against the sky. Without the valor of the helicopter pilots in Vietnam, countless additional names would have been added to the wall across the river."
Today, Carter reminded his audience, military pilots still undertake that same mission over Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In his remarks, Fanning said he and Kettles share a kinship of sorts, being that the two are both Michigan natives. He said that as a "Michigander," and with the heart of America's auto industry nearby in Detroit, "chances are you spent some time with machines."
"For Chuck Kettles, that meant a love affair with engines and aviation form the very start of his life, from his education at Edison Institute in Dearborn, where he practiced on the flight simulator, to his work with cars and engines at his Ford dealership, we see some of what prepared him to be an Army aviator," Fanning said.
"The Huey that Chuck flew was a pioneering machine at the time, but he knew instinctively how to get the most out of it. While the deeds we honor today are the product of great courage and valor, they have their roots in what he learned growing up in Michigan."
While Kettles had trained to fly early in life as a "Citizen Soldier," it wasn't training alone that accounted for his heroic achievements in Vietnam, Fanning said.
"Our admiration for Lt. Col. Kettles comes from his acts of heroism, but also from his quiet professionalism -- from how, on the day of his greatest testing, just with all other days, he embodied the Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage."
Kettles remained humble after the plaque bearing his name and the names of other Medal of Honor recipients was revealed. The Hall of Heroes contains more than a dozen plaques, bearing the names of more than 3,400 Medal of Honor recipients from all services, grouped by conflict.
Kettles knows personally at least two of those recipients, including Master Sgt. Raul Perez "Roy" Benavidez and Maj. William E. Adams, both of whom earned the honor for their own actions in Vietnam.
He said that while the Meal of Honor he wears around his neck can be worn by just one person, it represents the heroic actions of all the soldiers involved in the operation that day in May 1967, in Vietnam.
Some of those men had been with Kettles at the White House, the day before, when President Barack Obama placed the medal around his neck. At the Hall of Heroes induction ceremony in the Pentagon were two of Kettles' battle buddies, Don Long and Ron Roy.
"Between lifts into the landing zone, [they] brought ammunition in for resupply," Kettles said of the two men. "One such trip they took a mortar round on the mast of the helicopter."
The two had to exit the helicopter as a result of the damage. Long was injured. They joined up with the infantry.
"There were forty infantrymen, and four crew members with .38s. We didn't add a lot to the firepower. We were kind of in their way at times. We had a great leader who got things done," said Roy of their experience being with the infantry that day.
"To go borrow aircraft from another company, after all yours got shot down, that takes a lot of guts. And guts in the other unit too, pilots that came back in with Lt. Col. Kettles to come get us. Everybody knew what they were flying into. There was no question. It was not going to be pleasant."
John Osborne, who was crew chief on the helicopter that Kettles flew into the landing zone for that last mission, also attended the induction ceremony Pentagon with Kettles and his battle buddies.
"During that mission he took a shrapnel round in the knee," Kettles said of Osborne. "He refused to accept a Purple Heart -- he regarded as nothing."
"At one point I was scared to death," Osborne remembered. "I regained a little bit of composure, and we had set back down. That's when we really took the heat. But thank God we were able to get these people out. This man saved all of our lives. He got us out under adverse conditions."
Of Matt McGuire, a gunship leader, Kettles recalled, "in spite of the damage to each of his helicopters, Matt was always there."
"On that final extraction, there was only one aircraft for everybody to focus on and shoot at," McGuire said of Kettle's helicopter on the last run. McGuire attended the Pentagon ceremony too, and was present at the White House to see Kettles receive his medal.
"And the courage and the valor and commitment to the mission, saving those souls...is truly more than deserving of the Medal of Honor," he said, "because you were going into a really bad area. There wasn't much predictability of success. You believed in your skill, you believed in your crew, and that's what made a difference. That's why I am proud to be part of the brotherhood of aviation."
Roland Scheck, Kettle's door gunner, was also at the ceremony. Kettles said Scheck came to him from Germany, by way of Canada, though they met at Fort Benning, Georgia.
"Roland Scheck ... he was my door gunner, he had been from day one at Fort Benning," Kettles said.
Scheck was a German national who had gone to Canada to join the militia, expecting to be able to go to Vietnam. But when he learned that the Canadians were not going to Vietnam, he traveled to the U.S., to Detroit, Michigan, to join the Army.
"I had the good fortune of having him for my gunner," Kettles said.
Scheck said he was grateful to have Kettles too. Kettles saved his life.
"I want to thank him and all my brothers for what they did for me that day," Scheck said. "He didn't have to come back to get me. I was the first guy he had to haul away. He's been my hero ever since that day. And I'm sorry I couldn't stay for the rest of the day."
Also at the Pentagon was Dewey Smith, one of the last eight rescued on Kettles' last run. Richard Ammons, also one of the eight, had wanted to attend but was unable to make it due to medical reasons, according to Kettles.
"I was with the 101st Airborne," Smith remembered. "I was on the ground. I was one of the eight men that were picked up last. It was extremely heart dropping when the flight took off. Those of us in the rear guard, back in the brush, they didn't see us. They took off."
"But when I saw the one helicopter coming in, that made the day," he continued. "And it was unbelievable that he was able to bring it in considering the amount of fire it was receiving. I have nothing but gratitude for the man and his crew, and for all the helicopter pilots that day. They all did a good job bringing in resupplies, taking out our wounded, bringing us in new guys. It was amazing."
In the conclusion of his remarks, Kettles demonstrated the same patriotism and commitment to the nation he showed long ago in Vietnam.
"I have a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunities that each person is afforded by this nation," he said. "I also believe that there is no price for anyone to pay that contributes to the preservation of our great nation. I have faith in each generation that has come along and will in the future."