Pease Airmen remember a hero's legacy

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Erica Rowe
  • 157th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs Office
Members from the 157th Air Refueling Wing gathered here June 10 to remember the legacy of U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger, a radar repairman during the Vietnam War who was awarded the Medal of Honor for acts of gallantry in the face of danger that ended his life on March 11, 1968.

"It's important for our Airmen to hear about Chief Etchberger's legacy, so that they understand that real leaders are not above doing what many people consider jobs that are beneath them," said Staff Sgt. Na-Anthony P. Watson, 64th Air Refueling Squadron Commander's Support Staff technician, who was surprised that Chief Etchberger volunteered on the front lines.

Watson added, "as the presenter stated, chiefs are normally back with the command staff observing and giving direction, but not out on the front lines. Chief Etchberger actually got down in the trenches, so to speak, with the Airmen he served with, and he went the extra mile of putting himself in harms' way to save the lives of those Airmen with him."

For Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti, the event's guest speaker and author of "At All Costs," a book dedicated to the life of Etchberger, this story shows that the "Air Force was involved in a very important mission."

"I was in for 24 years before I had ever heard of this chief, "said Proietti. "I recently ran across the Air Force Sergeants Association (AFSA) annual almanac where they list the Medal of Honor recipients and the Air Force Cross recipients, and there's no mention of Etchberger who received the Medal of Honor in 2010 but received the Air Force Cross posthumously in 1969. This was all top secret stuff...The Air Force gave him the medal and never really recorded it, so this story is very new to the Air Force."

Proietti stated that Etchberger was a good Airmen, a great non-commissioned officer, and became an excellent leader who made the rank of chief within 15 years, which is what lead him to be a part of this top secret mission.

"What we wanted to do was to have North Vietnamese Communist leaders come to the bargaining table to talk about how we end this war," said Proietti. "What we said was 'we'll stop our bombing if you agree to come to the bargaining table,' and they said 'nope, we'll come to the bargaining table if you stop your bombing,' so there wasn't really any wiggle room, so our position became: let's make it hurt worse...and that's where Chief Etchberger came in." 

According to Proietti, in 1967, Etchberger was invited to participate in a project called Heavy Green.

"They invited him and about 30 other ground-based radar specialists to a meeting, and [the men] had to accept the mission before they could hear any of the specifics on [the mission]," said Proietti. "They learned two things during this meeting: First, they learned they had to go to Laos, which was declared neutral in 1962, and they also learned that they had to resign from the Air Force, and they would go over for a year."

Etchberger volunteered, and the rest is written in history.

In the hours preceding his death, Etchberger defended Lima Site 85, where he manned a top-secret radar site which helped guide bombers on missions to North Vietnam, against an attack from North Vietnamese Special Forces. Etchberger used a handheld radio to call for a rescue and air strikes.

Despite having received little or no combat training, Etchberger single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16 rifle, while simultaneously directing air strikes into the area and calling for air rescue.

Due to his fierce defense and heroic and selfless actions, he was able to deny the enemy access to his position and save the lives of his remaining crew.

With the arrival of the rescue aircraft, Etchberger, without hesitation, repeatedly and deliberately risked his own life, exposing himself to heavy enemy fire in order to place three surviving wounded comrades into rescue slings hanging from the hovering helicopter waiting to airlift them to safety.

For Proietti the story of Etchberger is personal.

"As an individual in the Air Force, I want [Etchberger and his crew] to get credit for what they did," said Proietti. "They were brave enough to leave the Air Force and then have to be surprised attacked...they were expecting an attack just not up that cliff."

"I just wanted to get their story out there."

And for Airmen at Pease, it was a reminder to remain selfless.

"So many of my mentors have taught me, the greatest person among us is the one with a servant's heart, and who exemplifies this in everything they do," said Watson. "I would tell our Airmen that promotion is not about being on the top or out-distancing the next military professional, but truly demonstrating unconditional love and service to your fellow man."

Etchberger is the only chief master sergeant ever awarded the Medal of Honor.

To read more on Chief Etchberger, view his citation here: