COLUMBUS, Ohio –
Courage, bravery, valor, – these are just a few of the attributes our military members embrace when unselfishly serving their country. In some unique cases, more than 4,000 to date throughout military history, that courage propels them into American hero status.
One of these unique persons - recent Medal of Honor awardee, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kettles, visited DLA Land and Maritime Oct. 19 and spoke to associates about his wartime experience. He also spent considerable time during his presentation discussing bedrock leadership qualities.
As James McClaugherty, acting DLA Land and Maritime commander welcomed associates and introduced Kettles, he acknowledged the magnitude of the moment and said Kettles’ introduction was the most meaningful honor during his tenure.
Kettles was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in 1967 when he volunteered to lead a flight of helicopters to carry reinforcements to a unit pinned down by enemy fire and evacuate the wounded. Kettles flew three resupply and evacuation missions that day, encountering fierce fire and piloting a severely damaged aircraft on his final rescue effort.
Kettles received the notification this past summer by President Barack Obama and it marked almost 50 years after he was originally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in that same 1967 battle in Vietnam.
Kettles recounted his actions to rescue fellow soldiers who were trapped by enemy fire with a humility that downplayed the danger he placed himself in. “It was entirely a team effort,” he explained. “What was really important was the rescue of the remaining 44 men. And what’s most important to me is that because of our actions their names don’t exist on the (Vietnam Memorial) wall in DC or anywhere else.”
During his presentation Kettles was asked what was his motivation as a soldier to do what he did, considering the danger he would expose himself to. “To me it was clear what had to be done. We got the order to go in and get those guys out and that’s what we did. I guess people call it brave or call it heroic, but we were just flying the mission – doing our jobs,” responded Kettles.
With Kettles during his trip to Columbus was his wife Ann, and Dewey Smith, an Ohio resident and one of the last eight soldiers left on the battlefield after the last rescue operation initially departed the area. Once Kettles was informed there were still soldiers on the ground he peeled out of formation and returned without gunship, artillery or tactical aircraft support to pick them up. Smith was the last soldier to board the rescue aircraft. The two became lifelong friends because of the shared experience that day.
With mortar rounds exploding around them and damage sustained to the windshield and nose bubbles of the aircraft Kettles didn’t break focus on the primary mission of getting the last remaining troops out of harm’s way. Through his efforts as the rescue convoy leader Kettles helped save 44 soldiers that day.
Piloting his aircraft riddled with bullet holes, Kettles said he began to second guess his survival odds and wasn't sure if he'd be able to return safely. "The fuel was flowing out so fast, I wasn't sure we were going to get the helicopter back to base," Kettles said.
“We didn’t think they would make the rescue attempt because of the intense enemy fire they faced,” said Smith. “We thought Colonel Kettles wouldn’t try to land, but because he did I’m here today to talk about it,” he said.
Near the end of his presentation Kettles recalled his humorous encounter with the Army Chief of Staff at his White House presentation ceremony. “As he shook my hand and laughed as he handed me a multi-million-dollar bill to replace the helicopters damaged and destroyed during the rescue mission,” Kettles said as he chuckled. “I asked if he’d take a credit card and we both laughed at that thought.”
Later that afternoon following Kettles’ presentation he and Smith met at a helicopter statically displayed on the Defense Supply Center Columbus’ installation; it was similar to the aircraft he used during his rescue mission. As they walked towards the aircraft he and Smith reminisced about their 1967 mission and harrowing details that bonded them forever. Kettles briefly sat in the pilot’s seat and you could see 50 years vanish in his eyes.
"I don't know how he did he it. He did some fancy flying that day and my presence here today is a testament to his skills," said Smith.
“I can’t think of any other way to describe Kettles other than to say he’s a hero,” Smith said. “This man was the ultimate professional; you’d never know how much danger there was if you observed his composure during the entire event.”