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Washington — President Barack Obama presented the military’s top honor to an Ypsilanti man who the president said saved the lives of 44 American soldiers as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War.

Obama said Lt. Col. Charles Kettles returned to the scene of a May 15, 1967, battle multiple times to rescue soldiers who were under heavy fire in Vietnam’s Song Tra Cau riverbed, including a final trip by himself to pick up eight who were left behind by previous trips from rescue choppers.

Obama said Kettles, 86, honored the Army’s creed of “a soldier never leaves his comrades behind.

“Chuck Kettles honored that creed — not with a single act of heroism, but over and over and over,” Obama said. “And because of that heroism, 44 American soldiers made it out that day.”

Obama added the story of Kettles’ bravery should inspire Americans who are concerned about recent outbreaks of violence in cities across the country in the wake of shootings involving police officers and African-American men.

“At a time when, let’s face it, we’ve had a couple of tough weeks, for us to remember the goodness and decency of the American people, and the 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,” Obama said.

Kettles thanked Obama for presenting him with the Medal of Honor after the ceremony at the White House was completed but he demurred on the president’s descriptions of him as a hero.

“The whole mission was worth it simply if nothing else to get those 44 men out of there,” he said. “It was successful in that regard, to minimize the loss of citizens. And that’s the only thing that really matters out of all the details.”

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, the nation’s highest military recognition.

“It might take time, but having failed to give our veterans who fought in Vietnam the full measure of thanks and respect that they had earned, we acknowledged that our failure to do so was a shame,” Obama said. “We resolve that it will never happen again.”

Michigan lawmakers were effusive in their praise for Kettles receiving the Medal of Honor.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she is glad the Vietnam War veteran is “finally receiving the recognition he deserves with our nation’s highest military honor.”

“We are grateful for his sacrifices and heroism in the service of our country, and I am so proud to see him receive the Medal of Honor,” Stabenow said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, added: “I am so pleased that Lt. Col. Kettles is finally receiving the recognition he deserves with America’s highest military honor. On behalf of a grateful state and a grateful nation, I thank Lt. Colonel Kettles for his service and devotion to our country.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said Kettles’ actions in the 1967 fight in Vietnam went “above and beyond the call of duty and his commitment to his fellow service members represent the highest values of the United States military.

“It was a true honor to help ensure LTC Kettles is properly honored as one of our nation’s bravest heroes,” she said.

Obama said he agreed that Kettles was deserving of the military’s highest honor, despite the Ypsilanti man’s demurring.

“Chuck, you’ve survived much worse than this ceremony,” Obama said. “And on behalf of the American people, let me say that this hubbub is richly and roundly deserved.”

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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