WASHINGTON — For decades, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. "Dick" Etchberger's courage under fire was kept as secret as the mission that placed him on a remote Laotian mountain, high above the clouds, in March 1968.
Now, his bravery that day can be written in stone.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday posthumously recognized Etchberger for service "beyond the call of duty" by giving him the nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Obama said those three words can now be etched into a granite monument to Etchberger's memory at Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana.
"Even though it's been 42 years," Obama said at a ceremony with Etchberger's three sons, "it's never too late to do the right thing and it's never too late to pay tribute to our Vietnam veterans and their families."
Etchberger was part of a radar team that came under attack by North Vietnamese soldiers who had improbably scaled the heights to Lima Site 85, a radar installation helping to direct U.S. bombing of Hanoi. The mission was secret because the U.S. was not supposed to have troops in officially neutral Laos.
The 35-year-old radar technician from Hamburg, Pa., with no formal training in combat, acted on instinct. Using an M-16 and a radio to call in air strikes, he single-handedly held off the attackers until helicopters arrived at dawn.
He then braved enemy fire to help three wounded comrades into rescue slings.
After climbing into the chopper behind the others, Etchberger was fatally wounded when enemy fire struck the aircraft. The others in the helicopter made it to safety.
"Today," Obama told Etchberger's sons in the East Room ceremony, "your nation finally acknowledges and fully honors your father's bravery."
"We knew that he was that kind of person," Richard Etchberger, who shares his father's first name, said afterward. "He would be here just saying 'I was doing my job up there.' I think he'd be really humbled but proud of his achievement."
Etchberger was secretly honored by the Air Force months after his death and his wife, Catherine, knew the truth of his mission. But his children, and others, at first did not.
Two decades later, the government declassified Etchberger's mission and "that's when they learned the truth, that their father had given his life not in Vietnam but in neighboring Laos," Obama said. "That's when they began to learn the true measure of their father's heroism."
Obama said Etchberger lived the airman's creed — "to never leave an airman behind, to never falter, to never fail."
According to an Air Force account, the men at Lima Site 85 were temporarily discharged from military service and nominally hired by a defense contractor for the duration of the mission, to help conceal the U.S. military presence in Laos.
Nineteen Americans were on the mountain, several thousand North Vietnamese were below, and they launched a massive artillery assault on the U.S. installation the night of March 10.
After their shift at the station, Etchberger and the four men with him moved down to a small rocky ledge on a safer side of the mountain. But more than 30 North Vietnamese somehow made it to the summit during the night, despite nearly vertical rock walls on three sides and a heavily mined and fortified fourth side.
"The enemy lobbed down grenade after grenade, hour after hour," Obama said. "Dick and his men would grab those grenades and throw them back or kick them into the valley below, but the grenades kept coming.
"When the enemy started moving down the rocks, Dick fought them off. When it looked like the ledge would be overrun, he called for airstrikes within yards of his own position, shaking the mountain and clearing the way for a rescue. And in the morning light, an American helicopter came into view."
As the rescue helicopter hovered and lowered its sling, Etchberger loaded the surviving but wounded men one at a time, exposing himself to the enemy each time. He loaded another airman who had rushed forward after hiding from the enemy all night, then finally got in.
But as the helicopter began to peel away, gunfire erupted below and Etchberger was wounded.
He was dead by the time the helicopter landed at the nearest base.
Of those 19 Americans on the mountain that night, only seven made it out alive, Obama said. Three were saved by Etchberger.