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Airman's Bravery Honored -- 42 Years Later

In this 1968 black-and-white US Air Force photo, via the Reading Eagle, Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger, a native of Hamburg, Pa., is shown during the Vietnam war. President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Etchberger, an airman killed during combat in Laos in 1968. (AP Photo/USAF, Reading Eagle)
AP Photo
Updated at 3:11 p.m.

President Obama on Tuesday awarded the Medal of Honor to an Air Force chief master sergeant who died saving three fellow airmen in Laos, his heroism kept under wraps for more than 40 years because the Vietnam-era mission was secret.

"Today your nation finally acknowledges and fully honors your father's bravery," Mr. Obama said told the three sons of Richard L. "Dick" Etchberger at an awards ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

"Even though it's been 42 years, it's never too late to do the right thing," Mr. Obama said.

(Scroll down to watch video from the ceremony)

One of the sons said afterward that his father would have been humbled to receive the nation's highest military honor.

"He would be here just saying 'I was doing my job up there,'" Richard Etchberger told reporters.

A native of Hamburg, Pa., Etchberger was an electronics expert without formal combat training in March 1968 when he single-handedly kept the North Vietnamese enemy at bay while helping evacuate wounded comrades from their radar station on a remote Laotian mountain after coming under attack.

The next morning, Etchberger managed to get three wounded comrades into rescue slings and on their way to safety. But Etchberger was fatally wounded after enemy ground fire struck the helicopter attempting to lift him to safety.

"He was the ranking man. It was all on his shoulders," retired Tech. Sgt. John G. Daniel, one of the men Etchberger shuttled to safety, told MSNBC.com. "He got us out alive. If it hadn't been for him, I would have been dead."

Because of Laos' neutrality in the Vietnam War, the American unit's presence there violated the Geneva Agreement. The story was kept under wraps for decades because the mission was secret. According to the MSNBC report, Etchberger was nominated for the Medal of Honor after his death but received the Air Force Cross instead, likely for political reasons linked to the mission's top secret nature.

Now, with details of the mission unclassified, Etchberger was honored for what his citation calls his "immeasurable courage."

Etchberger's mission was top secret and for years his children had been in the dark about it. Richard Etchberger, the son, said they were told only that he had died in a helicopter crash.