About a year ago a package arrived from Afghanistan to the family of Chief Master Sgt. Richard "Dick" Etchberger containing commemorative Air Force coins and a flag that had flown over a base in Afghanistan. The base, a radar site in the middle of nowhere, was named after Etchberger, who had died from enemy action that occurred near North Vietnam at a similar radar site.
"The reason it meant so much to us is these were the same kind of guys doing the same kind of job and they thought so much of our father and his legacy to name the base after him," said Dr. Rich Etchberger, a professor at Utah State University. "(My dad) spent his time setting up bases, radars at installations out in the field (similar to these Airmen's efforts) in Southeast Asia 40 years ago.
"They didn't say they were from Hill Air Force Base -- all we had was information that they were in Afghanistan," said Etchberger.
A desire to meet those responsible for setting up the base and honoring his father was born that day.
At the change in command ceremony for the 729th Air Control Squadron on April 12, the professor finally got the opportunity to meet some of the members who had set up the radar camp in Afghanistan and had chosen to honor his father.
Senior Master Sgt. Benjamin Higginbotham, Tech. Sgt. Doug Harriman and others met with the educator and his cousin, Sandy Mamales, of Salt Lake City, and they toured the 729th ACS area of Hill AFB.
"There are other sites out there in which the air control squadrons had named their sites after a fallen Soldier or Airman who had been injured in the line of duty so we wanted to do something along those lines," said Higginbotham after the April ceremony program as he talked about logic of choosing the name. "We knew the story (of his heroism), and that the Medal of Honor had been bestowed on him."
He said that he and Harriman had been considering names and when Harriman suggested Etchberger, he immediately agreed. They told their operations director and emailed their commander that unofficially they were going to call the camp, Camp Etchberger, and it stuck.
Higginbotham was a little concerned the family had been informed while the name was still pseudo-official, but there was no need for concern. The story of Dick Etchberger's heroism easily overcame any obstacles.
Four U.S. Airmen's lives were saved as a direct result of Etchberger's actions approximately 40 years ago in an attack at a remote radar site near the country of North Vietnam. At the ceremony in which President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to family members, a detailed account was given of his actions.
After being surrounded by North Vietnamese in the dark, Etchberger and his comrades defended their position on a ledge they had been forced onto as a result of a night attack. Unwounded and surrounded by the injured and dying he called in airstrikes. At one point when a grenade landed nearby, he took defensive action that saved himself and his men on the ledge when he threw a previously killed comrade over the grenade to defuse the force of the blast.
When daylight came and a helicopter arrived to get the wounded, he transported the injured to the hovering aircraft although under fire throughout the efforts. At the point when he was ready to leave, another sergeant appeared unharmed out of the chaos and they grabbed each other in a bearhug and jumped into a sling to be lifted up. In the hail of gunfire thereafter, Etchberger was shot and bled to death before they arrived in Thailand.
One of the surviving four Airmen was able to attend the medal ceremony, many years later, and there are multiple accounts of Etchberger's actions to save his comrades after the incident was finally declassified.
The radar site where Etchberger served was so secret the men serving there had been decommissioned and were there undercover as Lockheed technicians.
Since the declassification of the reports and the posthumous Medal of Honor, Dr. Etchberger has taken the opportunity to tour many bases and meet many young men and women serving their country. He was 11 years old when he lost his father and hadn't had a chance to understand the full depth of his father's valor so young. "I realize from meeting them that my dad was a great father," said the professor.
He had often been told that his father had died in a helicopter saving the lives of others but he didn't know much more than that. The declassification of records some years later did help to dissolve some of the mystery surrounding his father's death.
Both from the grandfather --- his father's father -- who helped raise him and these Airmen, the educator believes he gets to appreciate some of those qualities passed onto himself and understand more about the heroism of his father. "My dad didn't just come by being a great leader by chance," he said.