Vietnam Vet Who Saved 44 U.S. Soldiers Awarded Medal of Honor

President Obama presents the Medal of Honor to retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Kettles of Michigan during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Monday, July 18, 2016 / AP
July 18, 2016

President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War veteran on Monday morning for rescuing dozens of American soldiers who were pinned down by enemy fire in May 1967.

Retired Lt. Col. Charles Kettles of Ypsilanti, Michigan, was honored at the White House for leading helicopter operations to rescue U.S. troops trapped in an ambush near near Duc Pho, Republic of Vietnam.

Kettles led the helicopter flights carrying reinforcements, repeatedly returning to a landing area under heavy fire without regard for his own safety. In the end, Kettles saved 44 soldiers, including four of his own crew members.

Obama congratulated Kettles for the honor on Twitter before the ceremony.

Kettles was humble about receiving the award, saying he was just one man who was part of a broader effort.

"I didn’t do it by myself. There were some 74 pilots and crew members involved in this whole mission that day ... It’s not just me. I’m just leading the pack. Making the decisions, which some may not have liked them. I don’t know," Kettles said. "But those behind me were obliged to follow and they did. They did their job, above and beyond. So the Medal is not mine. It’s theirs."

In his final evacuation, Kettles was told that eight soldiers had been unable to reach the helicopters, so he returned for them without artillery or tactical aircraft support. His helicopter was hit by a mortar as well as machine gun fire.

"In spite of the severe damage to his helicopter, Kettles once more skillfully guided his heavily damaged aircraft to safety," the Army said in describing his rescue mission. "Without his courageous actions and superior flying skills, the last group of soldiers and his crew would never have made it off the battlefield."

The Veterans History Project campaigned to get Kettles’ Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor.

The Medal of Honor is awarded to those who go "above and beyond the call of duty," and show "great personal bravery or self-sacrifice," the White House said in a news release.