Hamburg students learn importance of hometown during Etchberger program

Photo by Carl Hess Rich Etchberger, Karli Phillips and Cory Etchberger with the Medal of Honor after the presentation.
Photo by Carl Hess Rich Etchberger looks on as his brother Cory speaks during the assembly.

“You can still make a different. You can be a hero everyday by doing the right thing,” said Cory Etchberger to students at Hamburg Area High School on March 11.

Cory and his older brother Richard told the story of their father, Chief Master Sergeant Richard “Dick” Etchberger. While many should be familiar with the name as it can be seen all around the area, the true story of Chief Etchberger’s heroism may not be as well-known. At the time of his death in March of 1968, the family was told that he died in a helicopter accident during the Vietnam War. It was 18 years later when his sons Rich, Cory and Steve Wilson learned the truth. It was 42 years later that Chief Etchberger’s family was presented with the Medal of Honor for his heroic efforts that saved three lives during a secret mission in Laos.

“I think we have an equally powerful, if not more powerful story here today,” said Chris Spohn, Hamburg Area High School Principal during the introduction of the program. “Because the story that is about to be told is about a young man who sat in these seats right here. So much of who he became was because he was a Hawk.”

Rich and Cory joked with the students throughout the serious program which had students completely focused on the two brothers in the otherwise silent auditorium.

“Today is the 46th anniversary of what you’re about to see,” said Cory. “Here is a gentleman, as you’ll hear, that will save the lives of three men and fight off the Northern Vietnamese for eight years.”

“The story of my dad’s life was tied up in secrecy because of the government,” said Rich. “It’s a really cool story, an inspirational story.”

The brothers used a powerpoint presentation to tell the students about their father’s life. They started from when he was young and had some old Hamburg Area High School photos. Once Chief Etchberger graduated from Hamburg, he joined the United States Air Force as a radar technician and excelled at the job. During his time away, he met his wife Kay (and her son Steve) and the couple married shortly. Before traveling overseas, son Rich was born and later while in Morocco son Cory was born.

While growing up, the brothers often lived on air bases around the world and became used to traveling. During this time their dad’s skill with his job would have him away for longer periods of time leaving Kay to raise the three boys at home.

“Because he was so good at what he did, he would take off for 4, 5 weeks at a time,” explained Rich.

Then “all of a sudden dad moves us back here,” continued Rich. “Later on in life this is going to be something that is super important in our lives. After everything came out it made much more sense. The Hamburg experience very much influenced our lives.”

When they reached the time of Chief Etchberger’s death in their presentation, the brothers showed a portion of the documentary “Souls of Valor” which included the family as well as friends and others speaking of that defining day.

In the early morning of March 11, 1968 the site in Laos where a group of technicians, including Chief Etchberger, were working in secrecy came under attack from North Vietnamese soldiers who scaled the surrounding cliffs. Of the 19 stationed there, only seven were still alive by 3 a.m. Chief Etchberger tended to his wounded comrades, called for air strikes and fought off advancing troops until a rescue helicopter arrived. After helping the others to the helicopter, Chief Etchberger was the last to board. While the helicopter headed toward an air base, an enemy soldier fired shots at the helicopter and fatally wounded Chief Etchberger.

For years his family, except for his wife Kay who knew about the secret mission, believed that he was killed in a helicopter accident. That January of 1969, the family as invited to a private ceremony at the Pentagon where they received the Air Force Cross on behalf of Chief Etchberger.

“I know he was a great Air Force guy, he was also a good dad,” said Rich in the documentary.

Once the mission was declassified, the family was able to know the true story of Chief Etchberger and he was also eligible for the Medal of Honor.

It was on July 6, 2010 that Cory received an email asking if he would be available on a certain time and day. On that day, he received a phone call from the President of the United States. The Medal of Honor presentation took place on September 1, 2010 and many people from Hamburg attended including one of the high school students. A video of the presentation was shown to the students during the program.

“Growing up, I always knew about Mr. Etchberger’s heroic actions,” said Karli Phillips, who documented the Medal of Honor presentation as part of her senior project for the Hamburg Area Historical Society. “I am extremely thankful for the opportunity that the Etchberger’s family has given to my own.”

The brothers finished the presentation by bringing out the framed Medal of Honor and with a short question and answer session. They made sure to stress to the students how important Hamburg was in their lives and that they hope it can be just as important in the students’ lives.

“Dad could have moved his family anywhere in the world he wanted to. He moved them to the town where you live,” said Cory. “I really hope you appreciate where you live.”

At the end of the program, students were able to come up and speak with the brothers and have a closer look at the medal.

Rich was presented with Commander’s Coin from Spohn which is a tradition at Hamburg (Cory already has one).

“Thank you for your service to us and your presentation today,” said Spohn.

Rich and Cory returned the favor by presenting Spohn with a Military Coin.

It was after the program that a freshman student approached Cory who he knew, if not in person at least through a letter. During the time of the Medal of Honor ceremony, Shannon Kemp was inspired by the story and wrote a hand written letter to the Etchbergers. Cory remembered the letter as he had just come across it again a few days earlier. It was a special moment for both Kemp and the Etchberger brothers.

It was also announced that the Etchberger Foundation will be presenting a scholarship for leadership and service beginning this year.

“We are going to begin this year and annually,” said Cory.

“We wanted to do something that was going to give back to them,” said Rich on why the foundation created scholarships.

The students were engaged throughout the presentation and paid close attention to what a fellow Hawk accomplished.

Follow The Item on Twitter @hamburgitem.

About the Author

Shea Singley

Shea Singley is the editor of The Hamburg Area Item. She grew up in Berks County and spent three years at the University of Arizona, Tucson, where she double majored in Creative Writing and English before transferring to Kutztown University where she majored in Professional Writing. Shea graduated from Kutztown University in 2012 and during that time completed an internship in the publication department of a non-profit organization in Washington, DC. She joined Berks-Mont Newspapers in March of 2013 and had enjoyed getting the chance to explore the Hamburg area and meet the readers. Reach the author at ssingley@berksmontnews.com or follow Shea on Twitter: @hamburgitem.