By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. commendation for valor, on Monday to retired Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kettles for saving the lives of 44 soldiers and crew men during a battle in the Vietnam War nearly 50 years ago.
In May 1967, Kettles led a group of helicopters to bring reinforcements and evacuate wounded from a firefight near Duc Pho, Vietnam. He returned to the battlefield again despite the danger, then returned a third time to evacuate the rest of the U.S. troops.
After departing what would have been the final time, Kettles learned that eight men had not made it on board. He decided to turn back.
"He broke off from formation, took a steep, sharp, descending turn back toward the valley - this time with no aerial or artillery support - a lone helicopter heading back in," Obama said during a ceremony at the White House, describing the scene. "Chuck’s Huey was the only target for the enemy to attack. And they did."
Kettles managed to land, pick up the eight men and take off again, flying everyone to safety.
Obama presented the award to Kettles at a White House ceremony with family members and some of the men he had saved.
"As many who know him have said, nobody deserves it more than Charles Kettles ... Many believe that, except for Chuck.As he says, this 'seems like a hell of a fuss over something that happened 50 years ago,'” Obama said, drawing laughter.
"Even now, all these years later, Chuck is still defined by the humility that shaped him as a soldier," he said.
Kettles told reporters after the ceremony that some 74 helicopter crew members were involved in the operations that day.
"The whole mission is worth it simply, if nothing else, to get those 44 men out of there," he said. "It was successful in that regard, to minimize the losses. And that’s the only thing that really matters."
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)