Lt. Col. Charles Kettles, an Ypsilanti resident and Eastern Michigan University alumnus who taught at EMU, receives Medal of Honor in ceremony at White House

YPSILANTI – Lt. Col. Charles Kettles, an Ypsilanti resident and Eastern Michigan University alumnus who distinguished himself in heroic combat operations in Vietnam, was awarded the nation’s highest military honor today during a ceremony at the White House.

Kettles, 86, received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama, who noted Kettles’ courage and valor in saving the lives of 40 soldiers and four of his own crew members on May 15, 1967, during fierce fighting near Duc Pho, Vietnam.


An admiring President Barack Obama noted Charles Kettles' extraordinary bravery and selflessness, along with his humility. Photo: CNN.

Obama laid out the extraordinary details of when Kettles, a helicopter pilot, repeatedly flew into a valley to save soldiers who were under heavy fire. Obama also noted Kettles’ life history, which included earning a master’s degree at Eastern Michigan’s College of Technology and teaching students there while developing the University’s Aviation Management program.

Better than any John Wayne scenario

The President cited Kettles’ actions as the ultimate example of the U.S. Military motto never to leave a comrade behind, and also noted Kettles' humility in dismissing what he termed the “hub-bub” regarding his actions 50 years ago.

“You couldn’t make this up … It’s like a bad Rambo movie,” Obama said, marveling at the narrative of Kettles’ repeated selflessness and bravery in the face of withering enemy fire in what was known as “The Valley of Chumps” for the danger it posed to American soldiers.

"In a lot of ways, Chuck is America," Obama said. "To the dozens of American soldiers that he saved in Vietnam half a century ago, Chuck is the reason that they lived and came home and had children and grandchildren. Entire family trees – made possible by the actions of this one man."

Obama noted that a soldier who was there that day said Kettles became their John Wayne.

"With all due respect to John Wayne – he couldn't do what Chuck Kettles did," Obama said.

Kettles’ military career along with an in-depth chronicle of his actions that day are detailed in the Medal of Honor website.

Kettles currently resides in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with his wife Ann.

Aviation influences

He was born in Ypsilanti Jan. 9, 1930, the son of a World War I Royal Air Force (Canadian) and World War II Air Transport Command (U.S. Army Air Corps) pilot, and thus had aviation in his blood.

While attending the Edison Institute High School in Dearborn, Michigan, Kettles honed his love of flying on the Ford Motor Company Flight Department simulator. Following high school graduation, he enrolled in Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University), where he studied engineering. Two years later, he was drafted to the Army at age 21.

Kettles graduated from the Army Aviation School in 1953 before serving active duty tours in Korea, Japan and Thailand. Kettles returned in 1956 and established a Ford Dealership in Dewitt, Michigan, with his brother, and continued his service with the Army Reserve as a member of the 4th Battalion, 20th Field Artillery.

Answering the call again

He answered the call to serve again in 1963, when the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War and needed pilots. Fixed-wing-qualified, Kettles volunteered for Active Duty and was assigned as a flight commander with the 176th Assault Helicopter Company, 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, and deployed to Vietnam from February through November 1967. His second tour of duty in Vietnam lasted from October 1969, through October 1970.

In 1970, Kettles went to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where he served as an aviation team chief and readiness coordinator supporting the Army Reserve. He remained in San Antonio until his retirement from the Army in 1978.

Kettles then completed his bachelor’s degree at Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, Texas, and then earned his master’s degree in commercial construction at EMU, where he went on to develop the Aviation Management Program at the College of Technology and taught both disciplines.

He later worked for Chrysler Pentastar Aviation until his retirement in 1993.

About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest university in Michigan. It currently serves 22,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Health and Human Services; Technology, and its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

July 18, 2016

Written by:
Geoff Larcom

Geoff Larcom