Sunday, July 31st, 2016

Charles Kettles

The story behind my August 2016 Everyday Heroes blog was decades in the making—86 years after this month’s Everyday Hero was born and nearly 50 years before he was recognized for acts performed in Vietnam in 1967. 

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Charles S. Kettles was born in Ypsilanti, Mich., Jan. 9, 1930. The son of a World War I Royal Air Force (Canadian) and World War II Air Transport Command (U.S. Army Air Corps) pilot, Kettles had aviation in his blood. While attending the Edison Institute High School in Dearborn, Michigan, Kettles honed his love of flying on the Ford Motor Company Flight Department simulator.

Following high school graduation, Kettles enrolled in Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University), where he studied engineering. Two years later, Kettles was drafted into the Army at age 21. Upon completion of basic training at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, Kettles attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and earned his commission as an armor officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, Feb. 28, 1953. Kettles graduated from the Army Aviation School in 1953, before serving active duty tours in Korea, Japan and Thailand.

Kettles returned in 1956 and established a Ford Dealership in Dewitt, Michigan, with his brother, and continued his service with the Army Reserve as a member of the 4th Battalion, 20th Field Artillery.

He answered the call to serve again in 1963, when the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War and needed pilots. Fixed-wing-qualified, Kettles volunteered for Active Duty. He attended Helicopter Transition Training at Fort Wolters, Texas in 1964. During a tour in France the following year, Kettles was cross-trained to fly the famed UH-1D “Huey.”

Kettles reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1966 to join a new helicopter unit. He was assigned as a flight commander with the 176th Assault Helicopter Company, 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, and deployed to Vietnam from February through November 1967. His second tour of duty in Vietnam lasted from October 1969, through October 1970.

Kettles’ awards and decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with Numeral “27”, the Army Commendation Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster, the National Defense Service Medal with one bronze service star, the Korean Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with one silver service star and one bronze service star, the Korea Defense Service Medal, the Armed Forces Reserve Medal with bronze hourglass device, the Master Aviator Badge, Marksman Badge with carbine bar, the Valorous Unit Citation, the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with bronze star, the United Nations Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with “60” Device, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with palm device.

On July 18, 2016, Kettles was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Obama for conspicuous gallantry in combat operations near Duc Pho, Republic of Vietnam, on May 15, 1967, where he is credited with saving the lives of 40 soldiers and four of his own crew members. (See the following link):

President Obama described Lt. Colonel Kettles' heroic acts that day:

"May 15, 1967, started as a hot Monday morning. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne were battling hundreds of heavily armed North Vietnamese in a rural riverbed. Our men were outnumbered. They needed support fast -- helicopters to get the wounded out and bring more soldiers into the fight. Chuck Kettles was a helo pilot. And just as he’d volunteered for active duty, on this morning he volunteered his Hueys -- even though he knew the danger …

 "Around 9 a.m., his company of Hueys approached the landing zone and looked down. They should have seen a stand of green trees; instead, they saw a solid wall of green enemy tracers coming right at them. None of them had ever seen fire that intense. Soldiers in the helos were hit and killed before they could even leap off. But under withering fire, Chuck landed his chopper and kept it there, exposed, so the wounded could get on and so that he could fly them back to base."

 Then-Major Kettles returned to the riverbed several times to retrieve his fellow soldiers, all while facing intense enemy fire and severe damage to his helicopter.

As President Obama said, Lt. Colonel Kettles' selfless acts of repeated valor represent not only the highest traditions of our military, but also one of the fundamental values of this nation:

"So the Army’s warrior ethos is based on a simple principle: 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. And because of that heroism, 44 American soldiers made it out that day -- 44 ...

 "And that’s one more reason this story is quintessentially American: Looking out for one another; the belief that nobody should be left behind. This shouldn't just be a creed for our soldiers –- it should be a creed for all of us. This is a country that's never finished in its mission to improve, to do better, to learn from our history, to work to form a more perfect union. And 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. What a great gift for us to be able to celebrate something like this."

It took nearly 50 years to officially and formally recognize Chuck Kettles for his actions in Vietnam in 1967. Chuck Kettles is a shining example of a man who dedicated years of service to the United States of America, often serving in harm’s way. He is a true Everyday Hero.

Joseph Badal is an award-winning suspense author who has written 10 published novels, including The Motive, which was released on July 19, 2016.