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Local man getting Medal of Honor would risk life again

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

Almost 50 years after his heroic mission in the Vietnam War, Lt. Col. Charles Kettles will finally receive the Medal of Honor from President Obama next month.

Kettles, 86, dressed in a black suit with a dark red tie, appeared Thursday during a press conference at the Michigan National Guard of Public Affairs.

The Ypsilanti native recalled the day — May 15, 1967 — he helped save 40 troops and four helicopter crewmen of the 176th Aviation Company in the Song Tra Cau riverbed.

“If I had to do it again, I would have done the exact same thing,” Kettles said. “I had to go back and get them. There was no hesitation about it.”

He flew his helicopter multiple times into withering fire from North Vietnamese troops to deliver medical supplies and to help the trapped U.S. troops.

Once airborne, Kettles was told eight troops were unable to evacuate due to protecting the other troops from enemy fire. After circling back with a severely damaged helicopter, Kettles was able to rescue the last group of soldiers and fly back to safety.

While Kettles is thankful to be recognized — which will take place July 18 with the president — for his courageous acts during the war, he wished his fellow soldiers could be recognized as well.

“This medal is not just for me, it’s for the 74 soldiers that was on that mission that day,” he said. “The 40 troops that were stranded, their names are not on the war memorial wall in Washington, D.C., and they should be there. This award is for them.”

Kettles was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1968, the second-highest military honor for servicemembers exemplifying courage and for extreme gallantry and risk of life in combat.

In 2012, William Vollano, a coordinator with the Veterans History Project, and Kettles’ family launched a campaign to upgrade his award to the Medal of Honor.

Legislation was introduced in November by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Sens. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, for Kettles to receive the honor. The legislation was signed into law as part of the Fiscal Year 2016 government funding bill.

The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military recognition. Awarded for valor in combat, the medal has been given to more than 3,400 U.S. servicemembers since being authorized in 1861.

“When I think about other ways I could have handled the emergency mission back then, I can’t think of any,” Kettles said. “The only solution was to go back and get them, but nothing will upstage the honor those 44 men displayed that day.”