Gallantry and Intrepidity Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

  • Published
Thank you General, friends of CMSgt Etchberger, distinguished guests, welcome.

As we recall today the service and heroism of Chief Etchberger in March of 1968, it is appropriate to reflect on the full impact of these events on the people and institutions that were part of his life. Chief Etchberger spent fully half his life in the Air Force, and like Airmen today balanced his personal and professional life along the way.

Dick Etchberger, referred to as Etch by some friends, grew up in Central Pennsylvania with his parents Donald and Katherine, and his older brother, Bob. Dick Etchberger was by no means an average young man, with a photographic memory--and I'm told exceptional basketball skills--he stood out from the crowd in high school. His intelligence, particularly his aptitude for electronics, would make him a natural fit to work with radar in the Air Force.

Dick Etchberger's Air Force career is a story of professional excellence, but also a story about a growing family. He met his wife, Catherine, at a Salt Lake City restaurant while stationed at Hill AFB. And when they married in 1956, Staff Sergeant Etchberger became a husband and a father to an 8 year old Steven. Over the next three years, sons Richard and Cory would be born as the family moved from Utah, to Morocco, to New York. As his family grew, his career was also progressing; and his potential as an Airman and leader became more and more apparent to his supervisors.

Combing through his performance reports the accolades sing, and it's easy to see why Chief Etchberger ended up on a mountain top to execute this sensitive mission. One supervisor notes that, "he would be extremely useful as a member of an advanced party, when setting up new Radar Bombing System sites." Another notes that, "MSgt Etchberger is the kind of NCO I would desire in my unit in combat." Another said, "Without a doubt, one of the most inspired, dedicated, competent, and impressive NCOs that I have ever observed." In fact, the statement that, 'He is the most outstanding NCO leader I have ever known," can be found, not once or twice, but five times. And, these comments are not by just junior officers, but junior and senior alike. Clearly, Chief Etchberger embodied our core values: integrity, service, and excellence.

By the time he was selected for this dangerous mission, Chief Etchberger was among the most highly trained radar technicians in the Air Force. He was deeply experienced, and at 34 not a very young man. But, he was more than a technician--he was a courageous leader of character.

On the 11th of March, 1968, having struggled to protect his wounded teammates and survive through the night, CMSgt Etchberger set eyes on his final sunrise. After assisting three others, one by one, to their rescue, in one final and desperate burst of enemy fire, the Air Force lost an outstanding Airman, his fellow Airmen lost a friend, and the Etchberger family lost a son, a brother, a husband, a father.

We cannot know for sure what the rest of CMSgt Etchberger's life might have been; the children--Steve, Richard, and Cory--that he would have watched grow, marry, and have children of their own--Traci, Steven, Madison, and Molly. He would never meet Traci, born the day of CMSgt Etchberger's passing, as she grew to become a great mom. Or Steven, another grandchild he'd never see, as he too would become a parent. He might've enjoyed sharing a round of golf with Madison, who inherited his athletic prowess; or talking with Molly, who too is an athlete and 4-H award winner, whose favorite subject is science.

And decades later we can only guess at the joy he might have known gazing lovingly into the eyes of his great grandchildren: Christopher, Jennifer, Anabella and Kaydence. Perhaps he would eventually describe places, people, and periods in his life--but how would Chief Etchberger have described this classified mission at Lima 85, this place where he and his band of brothers stood shoulder to shoulder against all odds? How Dick Etchberger's career might have progressed, what more he would have accomplished, and how the lives within the circle of his family might have been different... These are things we cannot know.

But there are many important things we do know. Hundreds of airstrikes were successfully executed as a direct result of Chief Etchberger's, and the rest of his team's, courageous work on Lima Site 85. The bold attempt to bring the complicated and unpopular conflict to a close was a noble--and honorable--effort. The history of this conflict continues to be written, evaluated, and understood--but the courage of the men and women in the fight is beyond question.

There are four Airmen who owe what became long and full lives directly to the courageous action of Chief Etchberger on the 11th of March, 1968. Capt Stanley Sliz, SSgt Bill Husband, SSgt Jack Starling and SSgt John Daniel would survive the day, and go on to live full lives with family, friends, and careers. We're blessed to have one in the room with us today. John Daniel survived to have seven children, 13 grandchildren--one of which, SrA Jerry Daniel Jr., serves as an F-22 maintainer at Langley--and a great grandchild. John would finish a full career and retire from the Air Force in 1979 to go on to become a successful business owner. And, at 71 he continues to enjoy the days that Chief Etchberger's actions made possible.

It has now been 42 years since the evacuation of Lima 85. For the few remaining who were directly involved, it no doubt remains a vivid memory; for many, memories of the gallantry and sacrifices in Vietnam may be more distant; and to a younger generation Vietnam is a faraway place indeed, present only in the history books, old movies and photographs, and through the stories of aging veterans.

But for his family, for our Nation, for the Air Force he loved and served, and for generations of Airmen yet to come, Chief Richard Etchberger's story will never be lost, it will never fade in our memory.

Already part of our Air Force family, already a part of our Air Force history, Dick Etchberger's name is now enshrined in our Hall of Heroes, creating a deep and unbreakable bond not just with our history, but with our heritage. Once lost beneath impenetrable layers of security, the story of Lima Site 85, and Dick Etchberger's example of integrity, service, and excellence - of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty - is assured of its future.

For the Etchberger family, please know that you have our deepest gratitude for the sacrifices you have made over the past 42 years. There is nothing we can do to make up for the emptiness his absence has left in your lives.

But today is not about mourning. Today we bring honor to Chief Etchberger's memory and our Nation's highest tribute to his service. His name will join 17 other Airmen who have received the Medal of Honor, 13 for action during the war in Vietnam. His story will join theirs in an unbroken line of service, of courage, and valor. And in doing so we celebrate, once again, how blessed we are that generation after generation of Americans, just like the extended Etchberger family and friends here today, has stepped forward to wear the nation's cloth. We celebrate the Airmen like Dick Etchberger, willing to take on the hardest missions, and willing to risk -and ultimately to give-- his own life that others might live.

Thank you Etchberger family, and especially to Chief Etchberger's parents, Donald and Katherine, looking down today--thank you for giving us a great Airman, and may God bless all the men and women in uniform who serve our Nation.