Etchberger award honors teamwork
The medallion of the Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger Team Award includes a likeness of Chief Etchberger as well as the site of his heroic action, Lima Site 85. (Air Force photo/Melanie Rodgers Cox)
Etchberger award honors teamwork

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

3/18/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, GUNTER ANNEX, Ala. -- The Air Force honored one of its own March 10 with its first award dedicated to teamwork at the Air Force Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy.

During a ceremony at Gunter Annex, the school unveiled a display on the Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger Team Award and the medallions for the recipients. Each medallion features Chief Etchberger and the Medal of Honor on one side, and Lima Site 85 in Laos, where he was killed, on the other.

"It's truly a pleasure to see this award come to fruition," said retired Col. Joseph Panza during the ceremony. Mr. Panza was a co-pilot during the rescue mission and now serves as the executive director of the Air University Foundation, which sponsored the award.

For more than a decade, senior NCOs have asked, "When are we going to do something to recognize teams?" said Chief Master Sgt. Alexander Perry, commandant of the Senior NCO Academy. "It is an honor to participate in this."

The first Chief Etchberger Team Award was presented during the Senior NCO Academy graduation March 11, 43 years to the day after he gave his life saving four crew members. The winning team from Class 11-B, Flight 17, had to prove its dedication to academics, physical fitness and community involvement.

"Chief Etchberger was part of a team, a team he volunteered with, sworn to secrecy to protect, fought beside and died saving," said Master Sgt. Tommy Holmes, the master of ceremonies at the graduation. "His unselfish actions truly were above and beyond the call of duty."

"Once established, this award will carry the same level of honor as does the Levitow (Honor Graduate) Award," Mr. Panza said. This award is presented to the top graduate from Air Force Airman Leadership Schools in memory of Sgt. John Levitow, the lowest-ranking Airman to receive the Medal of Honor during wartime.

Mr. Panza proposed this award after attending Chief Etchberger's Medal of Honor Ceremony Sept. 21 at the White House.

He still remembers March 11, 1968, when he first saw Lima Site 85 in Laos.

"I witnessed the carnage that took place there and the extraordinary heroism," Mr. Panza said.

"We lost 12 guys up there, 11 were unaccounted for," he said. "That was the largest loss of Air Force ground personnel during the Vietnam conflict."

Chief Etchberger's cousin, retired Chief Master Sgt. Russell Etchberger, of Panama City, Fla., attended the unveiling ceremony.

"There's some sadness today, but it's great to finally see him recognized," he said.

He has heard many stories about his cousin's dedication to teamwork. When his crewmembers were away on missions, Chief Richard Etchberger would call family members to check on them.

"He was a family-oriented person," Chief Russell Etchberger said.

Chief Russell Etchberger was in a Red Horse unit in Vietnam, and left three months before his cousin was killed. After serving his tour, Chief Russell Etchberger re-enlisted in the Air Force and made it his goal to reach chief to continue his cousin's mission.

"He did inspire me," he said.

Chief Richard Etchberger inspired Chief Russell Etchberger's son, Henry Etchberger, as well, who hopes to be accepted to the Air Force Academy soon.

Chief Russell Etchberger said he is looking forward to Memorial Day, when his family will gather in Hamburg, Pa., for a parade in his cousin's honor.