HACKETTSTOWN, NJ (Warren County) — In 1968, the United States military launched a covert operation high atop a mountain in Laos, near the border of North Vietnam. One of the first to volunteer was Chief Master Sergeant Richard L. Etchberger, a highly skilled Air Force radar expert. When the site came under fire, CMSgt Etchberger bravely saved the lives of three Americans before being killed.
The details of the mission and CMSgt Etchberger’s courage remained classified for more than two decades. Other than military top brass, only the widows—who had signed nondisclosure agreements—knew the true story. Years later, the story began to take shape as documents became declassified. CMSgt Etchberger was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2010. Two books and a segment of the Netflix documentary, Medal of Honor, have brought his story to the public.
To honor his courage and legacy, Centenary University recently announced the naming of its educational partnership with the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) for CMSgt Etchberger. The University’s partnership through the CCAF will now formally be known as the CMSgt Richard Etchberger Scholars Program, which will include students enrolled at Centenary through the CCAF’s General Education Mobile (GEM) Program for associate degree candidates and CCAF’s Associate to Bachelor’s Cooperative (ABC) Program for those seeking a bachelor’s degree.
Students—active duty air and space personnel—will be designated Centenary University Etchberger Scholars. Centenary is the only four-year, independent university in New Jersey accredited through the CCAF to host the GEM program, which is offered virtually.
“There are very few Medal of Honor recipients,” said Centenary University President Bruce Murphy, Ed.D., a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who also spent more than eight years as a senior civilian executive with the Air Force, including as vice president of academic affairs at the Air University in Alabama, CCAF’s parent organization. Dr. Murphy’s wife, Jeanne, is also a retired U.S. Army colonel. “We want to encourage CMSgt Etchberger’s devotion to duty and leadership in all of our students, especially those who come from the military. We are not honoring his memory today. We are recognizing his legacy, and we feel that very, very deeply.”
In attendance at the University’s announcement were Cory Etchberger, who was just 10 when his father was killed, and his daughter, Madison. Cory Etchberger and his brothers, Richard Etchberger and Steve Wilson, established the CMSgt Richard L. Etchberger Foundation to honor their father’s legacy and promote leadership and service among young people. On behalf of the foundation, Cory Etchberger presented a portrait of CMSgt Etchberger to be displayed in a place of honor on the Centenary campus.
“I am proud that the Centenary University Etchberger Scholars Program will help to instill the ideals of leadership and service above self,” Cory Etchberger said. “That’s the vision of our foundation and it’s what my father stood for. People talk about courage, integrity, and citizenship, which are great ideals. But life is really about what you actually do with those attributes. The sacrifice Dad made in service to others and his country defines his legacy.”
A resident of Hamburg, Pa., CMSgt Etchberger enlisted in the Air Force soon after his graduation from Hamburg High School. Trained in electronics, he was a specialist in radar operations. His technical expertise and leadership abilities led to his selection for a covert CIA and U.S. Air Force mission at a site on a remote mountain in Laos called Lima Site 85.
In the early morning hours of March 11, 1968, the site came under attack from North Vietnamese special forces soldiers who had scaled the surrounding cliffs. By 3 a.m., CMSgt Etchberger and six others were the only surviving Americans out of the original 19. He tended to the wounded, called for air strikes, and fought off the advancing North Vietnamese troops until a rescue helicopter arrived. CMSgt Etchberger then helped load the wounded onto slings to be lifted into the hovering aircraft before coming aboard himself. As the helicopter headed toward an air base in Thailand, an enemy soldier below fired his AK-47 into the underside of the aircraft, fatally wounding CMSgt Etchberger. In recognition of CMSgt Etchberger’s heroism, his wife, Catherine, was presented with the Purple Heart and the Air Force Cross, the highest honor bestowed by the Air Force.
Cory Etchberger said his mother, who passed away in 1994, never shared details about his father’s death. So, it was a slow process learning the true story, and ultimately, writing the family letter required for a Medal of Honor request. “It was kind of like watching snow melt,” he recalled. “Information started to trickle in. Now, I have Dad’s service records. It’s interesting—he was originally considered for the Medal of Honor in 1968. But awarding it then would mean the Pentagon would have to divulge the details of the secret mission.”
Forty-two years later, the Etchberger family gathered at the White House in 2010 to receive the well-deserved honor on behalf of CMSgt Etchberger. Reflecting on that day, and the growth of the Etchberger Foundation in the ensuing years, a visibly moved Cory Etchberger said, “That day, we thought it was the end of the honors Dad would receive. But really, it was just the beginning. There have been books and a Netflix documentary sharing his story. We’ve also visited schools to speak with young people. And now we’re here at Centenary, with a university program named in his honor. That makes me so very proud.”