YPSILANTI, Mich. (AP) — A Vietnam War helicopter pilot recently selected to receive the Medal of Honor said Thursday he didn’t hesitate to volunteer leading an airborne rescue mission that saved the lives of dozens of troops despite the prospect of coming under intense enemy fire.
“There wasn’t any decision to be made. We simply were going to go and pick them up,” Charles Kettles told reporters inside a Michigan National Guard building in his hometown of Ypsilanti.
It was announced this week that the 86-year-old retired lieutenant colonel will receive the nation’s highest military honor for valor from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony on July 18. Kettles was an Army major who led several helicopter trips to rescue wounded soldiers pinned down by enemy fire on May 15, 1967, near the district of Duc Pho in Vietnam.
“It’s certainly a great honor, but nothing will upstage the fact that we got 44 men out of there,” Kettles said during the news conference Thursday. “That award belongs to some 74 helicopter crew members each of which were requested to do their job. They did that and then some.”
The Army credits Kettles with helping to save the lives of 40 troops and four members of Kettles’ unit. As part of an effort to rescue the final eight troops still on the ground, Kettles flew into the landing zone without gunship, artillery or tactical aircraft support.
The North Vietnamese concentrated all their firepower on his helicopter, badly damaging a main rotor blade and shattering both front windshields and the chin bubble. Despite the severe damage to his helicopter, Kettles was able to guide it and the remaining soldiers to safety.
“The mission was simple,” Kettles said. “The situation was anything but simple.”
Next month’s ceremony is the culmination of an effort that began in 2012 when the Veterans History Project launched a campaign to upgrade Kettles’ Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor.
Several men from Kettles’ company and the 101st Airborne Division sent letters validating Kettles’ actions.
Lawmakers also got involved. After Defense Secretary Ashton Carter determined that Kettles’ actions merited the Medal of Honor, Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell and Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow introduced legislation waiving a time limitation for the award and paving the way for Obama to make the final decision.
The Army also announced that Kettles will be inducted into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes on July 19.
Kettles, who retired from the Army in 1978, told The Associated Press that he never has been to the White House.
The award and the attention he has received is “a lot of hubbub,” Kettles told the AP. “(I’m) not particularly accustomed to all of that. But I’ll survive.”
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