By Andy Fillmore
Published: Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 11:09 p.m.
“And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach … the unreachable star” …
-"The Impossible Dream," a song from the musical "Man of La Mancha"
SUMMERFIELD — These lyrics seem appropriate when reflecting on the sacrifice that Chief Master Sgt. Richard “Dick” Etchberger made.
“Our mother used to call Dick ‘the man of La Mancha,' (going) after his impossible dream,” said Etchberger's brother Robert, 81, who lives in Summerfield.
Dick Etchberger served his country with honor and died during the Vietnam War. He lost his life while saving fellow servicemen during the evacuation of a secret radar outpost that the enemy had overrun.
Now Etchberger's family is on the cusp of fulfilling a dream of its own — one that at times seemed impossible.
Dick Etchberger will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on Tuesday. Among those scheduled to attend the White House ceremony are Robert Etchberger and his wife Martha, who live in Spruce Creek South.
They will join 15 family members, at least one of the soldiers saved four decades ago by Richard Etchberger, and 100 invited guests.
Richard Etchberger's sons Cory, 51; Rich, 53; and Steve Wilson, 62, will accept the nation's highest military honor on their father's behalf.
The nearly 43-year odyssey for closure — Dick Etchberger died in 1968 — has connected family and fellow service members.
“Now we can get on with our lives,” Robert Etchberger said.
Richard Etchberger will join an elite group. There have been just shy of 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients since the medal's adoption in 1863.
Etchberger is being recognized for his “immeasurable courage and uncommon valor.” The actions are “what I would have expected of him,” Robert said.
Richard also will be enshrined in the Pentagon Hall of Heroes in a ceremony Wednesday.
Richard Etchberger was born in 1933 and joined the Air Force in 1951, following the lead of his older brother Robert, who joined the Navy in 1947.
“I just learned that recently,” Robert said about his younger brother following his footsteps out of admiration.
In 1967, during the Vietnam War, Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger volunteered for a mission at a secret radar site in Laos.
He was asked to direct bombing under poor visibility conditions, thereby disrupting enemy movements and supply lines.
“(My father) believed in and was 100 percent behind” the “all-weather” bombing site, Cory Etchberger said.
Richard thought the enhanced radar site would help bring an early end to the war and save American lives, Robert Etchberger said.
The site was staffed by Air Force personnel who had been discharged from the military and given covers as non-military, paid corporate employees of a government contractor.
The name of the site where Etchberger was stationed and ultimately gave his life on March 11, 1968, was LS LIMA 85.
He banded with his fellow servicemen to protect each other during an evacuation following a battle lasting seven-and-a-half hours.
Some 16 American soldiers' lives were lost in the struggle.
At the time the United States disavowed any military presence in then-neutral Laos.
A fellow member of the LIMA 85 team, John Daniel, was saved in the evacuation by Richard and will travel from his home in Colorado to the Medal of Honor ceremony.
“I definitely wouldn't be here if it were not for Chief Master Sgt. Etchberger,” Daniel said. “If (Richard) hadn't gotten us out of there we would have ended up dead or POWs.”
Daniel, a technical sergeant, lost nearly two inches of femur bone in one leg and suffered wounds to the other. He was awarded a Purple Heart.
“It gives me cold chills even now to think he will get the Medal of Honor; it's the ultimate,” Daniel said. “I think he should get a 55-gallon drum full of medals.”
“We thought (the radar site) would work or we wouldn't have done it,” Daniel said. But the mission eventually led to a ground attack from enemy forces, who overran the lofty installation.
Etchberger, Daniel and others were forced down a sheer cliff as the enemy lobbed grenades down on the group. The Americans tossed the grenades away and tried to help each other.
A 3-foot panel painting by John Witt depicts Etchberger holding an M-16 rifle that day while using a hand-held radio to direct an Air America helicopter in a last-ditch rescue attempt.
According to survivors' accounts, Etchberger was not yet injured as he helped load two soldiers into the hovering craft. After he boarded the chopper, a spray of enemy fire hit the bottom of the unarmored helicopter.
Etchberger was the only one hit; he died in the arms of one of the helicopter's crewmen.
In 1968 Etchberger was awarded the Air Force Cross. Medal of Honor nominations may have been put aside due to the sensitive nature of the assignment he was carrying out when he died.
In 1998, Robert Dilley, 55, an Air Force veteran who had never met Etchberger, came across a website detailing LIMA 85 and Etchberger's story.
“One of my high school history teachers, Mr. Don Boldt, told his students, ‘If you think something's not right, challenge it,'” Dilley said.
He wrote a letter to his congressman and renewed the Medal of Honor quest for Etchberger. It turns out the men served in the same unit, though of course not at the same time.
Although the efforts to have the Medal of Honor awarded to Etchberger succeeded only after many years, Cory Etchberger doubts stories that President Lyndon Johnson denied the request. Johnson probably never saw the request.
Dilley said he thought the efforts had failed just because so much time elapsed.
Robert Etchberger said his younger brother was a popular kid in school, the class president and a jokester.
“Dick stole the maypole in school — it was to dance around at the May Day celebration — and after a meeting with the principal and June Kline, the student in charge of the celebration, Dick returned it.”
Years later, Kline helped raise funds for a granite memorial in Richard's hometown of Hamburg, Pa., and had buttons made reading “Hamburg's Hometown Hero: Richard Etchberger.”
What did the hero think of the Vietnam War?
“Dick said, ‘America had to draw a line at some point against communism,' and he was part of that line,” Robert said.
Cory Etchberger said he is leaving the politics aside and concentrating on continuing to get to know his dad. In fact, he's contributing to an upcoming biography of his father.
“My dad was a true hero an ordinary man reacting to extraordinary circumstances,” Cory said.
“I'm proud and humbled to accept the award and feel I have gotten to know my dad better than many” with living fathers, Cory said.
“I have gotten to know my dad mainly through the men he served with,” Cory said. “I'll let history judge the mission 100 years from now.”