Sergeant gets posthumous Medal of Honor

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LISA MULLINS: President Obama today posthumously awarded a US Air Force sergeant the military's highest award for bravery. The Medal of Honor was given to Richard Etchberger. Sergeant Etchberger and a handful of colleagues were running a top-secret radar installation in Laos in 1968. They came under attack from the North Vietnamese. Richard Etchberger was killed, but not before he had saved the lives of at least two of his colleagues. Timothy Castle is with the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence. He wrote the book One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam. We reached him before this afternoon's ceremony at the White House. Tim Castle, what did Sergeant Etchberger do?

TIMOTHY CASTLE: Chief Master Sergeant Etchberger and the other 15 technicians what were at Site 85 were there to direct F-105 bombers on missions against North Vietnam and Laos. On the night of [INDISCERNIBLE] 1968, Chief Etchberger and the rest of his group were surprised by a [INDISCERNIBLE] commando attack that encircled their radar van and caused Chief Etchberger and the people that were with him to be forced onto a cliff that dropped off some two to three thousand feet. So, they were trapped on that cliff for about 4 hours before the Air America helicopter was able to come in and perform the rescue. During that time, Chief Etchberger defended his wounded comrades and was incredibly heroic in placing himself in danger not only defending them all through that night, but then placing two of his comrades initially on a hoist going up to the Air America helicopter and then finally went on the hoist up into the helicopter presumably safe at that point and then when the aircraft pulled away, tragically Chief Etchberger was hit by gunfire from the North Vietnamese commandos.

MULLINS: And they had no idea, or no expectation anyway, that the North Vietnamese commandos would be scaling that cliff.

CASTLE: That is absolutely correct. The 19 Americans that were there had no knowledge and ever expected that those commandos would be able to climb those cliffs. The expectation was that that very morning that rescue helicopters would come in, they would rescue all the people from the site, the equipment would be blown up, and the program would actually continue from another place in Laos.

MULLINS: When you mention that the copter was, an Air America copter, this is a CIA-affiliated chopper. This is significant that the CIA came to the rescue. This is also not the first time that the Sergeant was recommended for a Medal of Honor posthumously. But the request was rejected before. Tell us why.

CASTLE: It's very clear to me from the documents at the time that the Air Force had a very difficult situation. They had this fellow who, as you say, was recommended for the Medal of Honor by his unit, but the Air Force senior leadership realizing that if they were to give somebody the Medal of Honor, that publicity would reveal the fact that US military personnel were in Laos which was a violation of the Geneva Agreement. And so it's clear to me that the Air Force leadership decided that they would have to go with the second highest decoration, the Air Force Cross, and the Air Force Chief of Staff presented the Air Force Cross to Mrs. Etchberger in December of 1968.

MULLINS: What is the significance that it has taken 42 years, more than 42 years, since the death of this airman, for him to be recognized in public in this way?

CASTLE: I think what it means is the US government, and especially the Air Force, recognizes that what happened there in 1968, there are many lessons to be learned from that incident. And there were many difficulties that the families faced. There are still 10 men unaccounted for from that loss that night. So there are 10 families that still don't know what happened to their loved ones. The largest single ground loss of air force personnel from the entire Vietnam War. And so I think all of this provides some lessons for military planners and for the politicians today to think about the consequences of operations when our people are put at risk.

MULLINS: That's Timothy Castle, who's the author of One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam. He spoke with us this morning from Washington. Two hours later Chief Master Sergeant Richard Etchberger's three sons accepted the Medal of Honor on their late father's behalf from President Obama.

BARACK OBAMA: Today Steve and Richard and Cory, today your nation finally acknowledges and fully honors your father's bravery because even though it has been 42 years, it's never too late to do the right thing. And it's never too late to pay tribute to our Vietnam veterans and their families.