Secretary of Defense Speech

Medal of Honor Ceremony for Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kettles


Deputy Secretary Work, Vice Chairman Selva, General Allyn, family and friends of Lieutenant Colonel Kettles, thank you, thank you all, for joining us today. I particularly want to welcome his wife Ann, son Michael, daughter Cathy, brother-in-law Patrick, nephew Michael. We’re so proud to have you all here.

We gather today here to honor an American hero…though, like the three other Medal of Honor recipients who honor us with their presence today, he would resist the description. In fact, for nearly 50 years he stayed quiet, content to allow his remarkable story to reside mainly in the memories of fellow soldiers like Roland Sheck and Dewey Smith, who are here with him today. Thanks, Gus.

And it would have stayed that way if his wife Ann hadn’t prompted him to tell the story to William Vollano, a dedicated volunteer with the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project who is helping preserve and pass on these vital stories for generations to follow. Even after some prompting, Lieutenant Colonel Kettles downplayed his role, talking up the heroism of his fellow soldiers, and the technical capabilities of the UH-1 Huey he flew in a new kind of war. And that, by the way, he still loves, flying in one a few weeks ago.

Like so many of our veterans, he was content to know that he’d done his job, he’d served his country, and he’d looked out for his fellow soldier. But when this remarkable story was brought to my attention last August, I agreed that it was important to properly recognize his actions, and asked Congress to pass special legislation allowing this belated honor.

And thanks to the efforts of Representative Dingell, Senators Stabenow and Peters, and Chairman Rogers, President Obama was able to present our nation’s highest military honor to Lieutenant Colonel Kettles yesterday in the White House. And today, it is our profound honor to add his name to the wall in the Hall of Heroes here in the Pentagon.

But first I want to talk about a different wall, just over the river, downtown, across Potomac. There, as you all know, are over 58,000 names inscribed in black granite on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Every name represents a great loss for a family, and our nation. But as President Obama noted yesterday, because of the valor of then-Major Kettles and his crew on May 15th, 1967, there are 44 names that are not on that wall.

Just think about what that means. How many Thanksgiving tables have had an extra chair through the years because of his actions? How many weddings, childbirths, and graduations were made possible because Major Kettles and his crew returned, again and again, to the hot landing zone on the Sông Trà Câu riverbed?

We can only wonder. Just as we can only wonder what must have gone through Major Kettles’ mind the first time he approached the landing zone and saw an entrenched enemy in battalion force, intensely firing upon the outnumbered American troops below. But we know that in the face of all that, he landed. And we know he stayed under fire long enough to offload reinforcements and supplies, and to take on the wounded.

We may never fully comprehend what must have gone through Major Kettles’ mind next as he piloted his damaged helicopter back to base, full of holes, leaking fuel. But we know that he made it, saving all on board. And then he jumped to another Huey.

We can only imagine what must have gone through Major Kettles’ mind as returned to the landing zone, fully aware of what he would face. But we know that he led six helicopters in, exposed to withering fire, to exfiltrate the embattled force.

And then, we can only guess what went through Major Kettles’ mind as he made the defining decision to double back yet again – this time for the eight soldiers who remained pinned down on the ground and under continuous fire. Surely he must have known that as the only aircraft returning, he would take all the fire. And he surely knew that without any air support, his odds of successfully taking off again weren’t good.

But we know that in the face of those odds, he did land. We know that he retrieved the squad. And we know that despite being hit by a mortar round and machine gun fire – damaging his tail boom and his main rotor blade, and shattering both front windshields and the chin bubble – he still got into the air, and back to safety once again.

No, we cannot fully know what went through the mind of Major Charles Kettles that day. But we know what motivated him. We see it in the names on the walls of this very room, we can feel what has always motivated the men and women of our military: Duty. Honor. Country. And the deeply held conviction that we will never, ever, leave a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine behind.

For many American servicemembers in harm’s way, the first indication that they would see their family again was the sound of helicopter blades beating against the sky. Without the valor of the helicopter pilots in Vietnam, countless additional names would have been added to the wall across the river.

And without the pilots and crews who continue the watch today – in Blackhawks, Ospreys, Chinooks, Lakotas, Pave Hawks, Super Stallions, Cobras, Apaches and more, over Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere – many more would have been lost over the past 15 years of war.

Today, as we honor Lieutenant Colonel Kettles, we honor the many other pilots and crews who have taken great risks, and made great sacrifices, to support the warfighter on the ground and bring them safely home.

If you were to walk from this auditorium up the stairs to my office, you’d see a large painting featuring a line from the book of Isaiah that well describes the man we honor today:  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” the line goes. “Here am I, send me.”  

Lieutenant Colonel Kettles, you’ve never hesitated to answer “send me” when the call came – whether it was serving active-duty tours in Korea, Japan, and Thailand, or returning from civilian life as a citizen soldier to serve multiple tours in Vietnam, or displaying conspicuous gallantry in the face of enemy fire on the riverbed at Sông Trà Câu. On behalf of the families of the 44 men you helped save that day, on behalf of the men and women of the Department of Defense, and on behalf of a deeply grateful nation, I congratulate you on this well-deserved honor, and I thank you for your service to the United States of America. Thank you.