President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest military honor to a Vietnam War veteran on Monday, noting 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, helping to save more than soldiers.
Obama said the story 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 said during the ceremony that after police shootings 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. He is credited with helping to save 40 soldiers and four members of his unit. During the final evacuation effort, he was advised that eight soldiers had been unable to reach the helicopters, so he returned without benefit of artillery or tactical aircraft support.
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The Army said his helicopter was hit by a mortar round that damaged the main rotor blade and shattered both front windshields. Small arms and machine gun fire also raked the helicopter.
"In spite of the severe damage to his helicopter, Kettles once more skillfully guided his heavily damaged aircraft to safety," the Army said in describing his actions. "Without his courageous actions and superior flying skills, the last group of soldiers and his crew would never have made it off the battlefield."
The Veterans History Project launched a formal campaign to upgrade Kettles' Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day to the Medal of Honor. After the Pentagon agreed his actions merited an upgrade, Congress passed legislation waiving a time limitation for the award, and paving the way for Obama's action.
Obama said Kettles was humble and described how Kettles had noted there were some 74 pilots and crew members serving in that mission. Obama said that Kettles had remarked of the ceremony: "This seems like a hell of a lot of fuss for something that happened 50 years ago."