It took an amateur historian and an act of Congress to get Medal of Honor
By GREGORY KORTE | USA Today | Published: June 22, 2016
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — It was a daring rescue mission that helped save the lives eight soldiers by flying a damaged, overloaded helicopter through intense enemy fire — a heroic act that, in retrospect, everyone seems to agree is deserving of the Medal of Honor.
But for 49 years, it was recognized only by the military's second-highest honor, the Distinguished Service Cross — one of more than 1,000 such decorations awarded during the Vietnam War.
And that's where the story of Army Lt. Col. Charles Kettles would have ended, if not for an amateur historian who thought the story was worthy of much more.
The six-year campaign to have Kettles awarded the Medal of Honor culminated Tuesday, when the White House announced that President Barack Obama will award him the nation's highest military honors next month.
It's not unprecedented for a Medal of Honor to be presented so long after the fact. Fifty-eight recipients have waited as long or longer than Kettles — but only 10 of them were alive to receive it. The rest were awarded posthumously. Most of those were deliberately overlooked at the time because of racial, ethnic or religious discrimination.
But increasingly, amateur historians have prompted Congress to reopen old individual cases.
William Vollano, of Ypsilanti, Mich., has interviewed dozens of veterans as a volunteer for the Veterans History Project, a program of the Library of Congress to record oral histories of former servicemembers. And at first, his interview of Kettles wasn't much different from any other. Kettles talked about his military career in Korea and Vietnam, but it was only after prompting from his wife that he brought up the mission that led to his Distinguished Service Cross.
Even then, Kettles credited the UH-1 Huey helicopter ("It's a great machine," he said) and the 62 other crewmembers in his platoon.
Vollano wanted to know more, so he reached out to other soldiers in Kettles' unit.
"Bill apparently was not satisfied that he had the whole story," Kettles, now 86, told USA Today.
One of them was Roland Scheck, a German-born specialist who served as a door gunner and crew chief on many of Kettles' missions. He told Vollano his version, ending with Kettles' decision to go back — without any guns or crew — to rescue eight soldiers who had been mistakenly left behind.
"Immediately, all the pilots and co-pilots in the company decided, 'This is Medal-of-Honor material right there,' " Scheck said.
"The more and more that I heard, the more I thought this guy, he was cheated," he said.
Vollano told Kettles he wanted to look into upgrading the award to a Medal of Honor.
Kettles didn't exactly discourage him, but was realistic about the chances.
"I explained to him that that was no easy task," Kettles said. "I wanted him to have some understanding of what was involved. It was not something you could do in a single letter to (the Army)."
Vollano assembled eyewitness accounts from Kettles' platoon and forwarded them to his local congressman, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. Dingell retired in 2015, and his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, succeeded him, lobbying the Pentagon on Kettles' behalf.
"This project came from the veterans themselves. They're the ones who thought that he was deserving of the Medal of Honor," she said. "My job is to be responsive to them."
Kettles' cause got a boost last August, when Defense Secretary Ash Carter signed off on it.
"After giving the nomination careful consideration, I agree that then-Maj. Kettles' actions merit award of the Medal of Honor," Carter wrote Debbie Dingell. Carter said he would recommend the medal to Obama — who makes the ultimate decision.
But there was a hitch.
By law, a recommendation for a Medal of Honor must be made within three years of the act — and it must be awarded within five years. For Kettles, that deadline passed in the Nixon administration.
Congress had to pass a specific law waiving the time limit, at a time when few bills are moving. The usual vehicle for those exceptions is the annual defense authorization bill, but Obama vetoed the first version of that bill last year.
So Dingell did something that may have been unprecedented: She approached the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee about attaching it to a spending bill.
"There were people lined up to see him and I said, I don't want money. I just need help," Dingell recounted. "He's getting older. He deserves it. We need to right a wrong."
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., inserted the provision, and Obama signed it into law last December.
And Tuesday, the White House announced that Obama would finally award Kettles the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony in July.
Tom Vanden Brook contributed from Arlington, Va. ___
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