YPSILANTI – Federal legislation has been passed to rename the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Ann Arbor after Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Kettles, an Eastern Michigan University alumnus and Vietnam War hero who received the military’s highest distinction.
Kettles, who passed away in January of 2019 at the age of 89, served in the Vietnam War as an Army helicopter commander and was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2016 for leading a rescue operation that saved 44 soldiers.
“Michigan will be forever proud to call Lieutenant Colonel Kettles a native son,” said Michigan Senator Gary Peters in a Facebook post. “His bravery and commitment to his fellow service members embodied the values that make our military – and nation – so strong. I'm honored to help pass legislation renaming the Ann Arbor VA after him.”
The lawmakers’ legislation passed the House of Representatives in October. The legislation now goes to the president.
Kettles has a deep history with Eastern, which named its Military and Veterans Service Center after him in 2016.
In awarding Kettles the Medal Honor in 2016, President Barack Obama noted his 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.
Kettles, a helicopter pilot, repeatedly flew into a valley to save soldiers who were under heavy fire. Later, Kettles earned a master’s degree at Eastern Michigan’s College of Technology, teaching students there while developing the University’s Aviation Management program.
A powerful example for EMU’s military veterans
During the Eastern Michigan naming ceremony, Michael Wise, Assistant Director of Military and Veterans Affairs at Eastern, spoke of Kettles’ exceptional bravery and of the inspiration he provided.
“His actions during combat were extraordinary, and his career stands as a shining example of all that we appreciate and honor in our veterans and those serving now,” Wise said then.
President Obama 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.
Deep roots in Ypsilanti and at Eastern Michigan
Kettles 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, he 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 served active duty tours in Korea, Japan and Thailand before returning in 1956 and establishing a Ford Dealership in Dewitt, Michigan, with his brother.
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, 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 in the College of Technology and taught as well.
He later worked for Chrysler Pentastar Aviation until his retirement in 1993.
Kettles resided in Ypsilanti with his wife, Ann, who passed away earlier this year at age 90.
About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 16,000 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; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; 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.