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July 19, 2016 01:10 PM

Four helicopter trips into a combat zone. Forty-four people saved. Forty-nine years.

It would be difficult to sum up Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kettles’ life in numbers, but those are the essential ones. In May 1967, two years into America’s ground war in Vietnam, Kettles, then a major, was the lead pilot of six helicopter crews sent to rescue a group of American paratroopers trapped by North Vietnamese troops.

Monday, he received the nation’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his efforts.

“A soldier never leaves his comrades behind,” President Barack Obama said Monday when he presented Kettles, 86, with the Medal. “Chuck Kettles honored that creed – not with a single act of heroism, but over and over and over.”

Obama continued, “And at a time when, let’s face it, we’ve had a couple of tough weeks, for us to remember that goodness and decency of the American people and the way we can all look out for each other, even when times are tough, even when the odds are against us, what a wonderful inspiration.”

Kettles’ helicopter crews reached the trapped soldiers, near Duc Pho on the south-central coast of Vietnam, around 9 a.m. that day. The crews took losses while they were still airborne but Kettles managed two trips before his helicopter was damaged by gunfire, wounding his door gunner and piercing the fuel tank.

Kettles found another helicopter and successfully completed a third trip before discovering that eight soldiers had been left behind. So he went back.

By all rights, Kettles’ fourth trip should have been his last. He no longer had artillery support or other helicopters to draw fire and he was flying so fast that, on his descent, his craft bounced along the ground for hundreds of feet before coming to rest. When he landed, his windshield and rotor blades were hit by mortar blasts.

The remaining eight soldiers piled into the now-smoke-filled helicopter’s cabin – pushing the aircraft 600 pounds over its weight limit – and took off. Kettles, speaking with The Detroit News last year, said the helicopter “flew like a two-ton truck, but we were able to get up in the air and get everyone to safety.”

With his helicopter damaged and overweight, Kettles was forced to skip it like a stone across the terrain to get enough speed to take to the air. Again, it was hit by enemy fire, causing the craft to rock so violently, a soldier was thrown through out the helicopter and had to grab one of the landing skids. “This is like a bad Rambo movie, right?” Obama said as he recounted Kettles’ day. “You’re listening to this, you can’t believe it.”

“A soldier who was there said, ‘That day, Major Kettles became our John Wayne,'” Obama continued. “With all due respect to John Wayne, he couldn’t do what Chuck Kettles did.”

President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Kettles
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Kettles, who was drafted into the Army in October 1951 after attending Michigan State Normal College, completed two tours in Vietnam before returning to his native Ypsilanti, Michigan and finishing his bachelor’s degree in aviation. He then earned his master’s – also in aviation – established an aviation management degree at the school (now Eastern Michigan University) and taught classes there while also working for Chrysler Pentastar Aviation.

Kettles received the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1968 for his bravery, but it was only four years ago that William Vallano, of the Veterans History Project, launched a local campaign to award Kettles with the Medal of Honor. It eventually reached then-Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn), who petitioned the Defense Department to consider Kettles’ case – the Medal of Honor usually must be awarded within five years – and eventually earned the backing of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. The years of red tape culminated in the award ceremony Monday.

“I had to do what I thought was necessary,” Kettles told The Detroit Times. “I couldn’t leave anyone behind.”

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