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Remembering sacrifices of our unsung heroes

KADENA AB, Japan -- One of the most important, but most difficult things we can do as Airmen is ensure our "unsung heroes" receive proper recognition. It's easy to identify and pile glory on the troubleshooter who's out in front, saving the day. It's harder to find and honor the trouble-preventers who toil behind the scenes, working hard and smart, to prevent trouble from occurring in the first place. 

Hardest of all though is to recognize those who face trouble behind the scenes, and deal with it quietly, professionally, and heroically. Chief Master Sergeant Richard L. Etchberger was such a hero. 

In 1967, Chief Etchberger was a radar maintenance technician leading 18 other Airmen as Crew Chief of Lima Site 85, a radar station in Laos which guided aircraft to targets in North Vietnam as part of a top secret program called Heavy Green. 

In March 1968, the site, only 12 miles from the North Vietnamese border, was surrounded by an enemy ground force of over 1,000 and came under "sustained and withering fire." Taking a defensive fighting position, Chief Etchberger returned fire, directed air strikes, and vectored the air evacuation force to his surrounded crew. 

"When air rescue arrived, Chief Etchberger deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire in order to place his three surviving wounded comrades in the rescue slings, permitting them to be airlifted to safety." Chief Etchberger was the last to leave the site; he was fatally wounded while boarding the rescue helicopter. 

For "his fierce defense which culminated in the supreme sacrifice of his life," Chief Etchberger was recommended for the Medal of Honor. However, a Medal of Honor presentation would have revealed Project Heavy Green. So instead, the Chief was posthumously awarded the Air Force's second highest award for valor, the Air Force Cross. The award would remain a secret for almost 30 years. 

Finally, in 1998, Chief Etchberger, perhaps the epitome of the "unsung hero," began receiving proper recognition. His Air Force Cross was made public. In 2000, an exhibit in his honor was unveiled in the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Hall. And now, the 2009 defense authorization bill contains a section that would authorize the Medal of Honor for Chief Etchberger. 

Obviously, few of the unsung heroes among us face challenges like Chief Etchberger, and fewer still make the ultimate sacrifice. But every day, all around us, troubleshooters and trouble preventers face tremendous obstacles and deal with them quietly, professionally, and heroically. 

There's a Japanese phrase that applies almost perfectly to these heroes: Okage sama de. It literally means, "Sir/ma'am in the honorable-shadows," but a better translation is something like, "Very respectfully, thanks to you and your hard work behind the scenes." 

To Chief Etchberger, and all the unsung heroes of Kadena Air Base, okage sama de.