The following is a guest post by Owen Rogers, Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP).
Veterans and their families often ask staff at the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, “What happens to my story after it’s recorded?” In the case of Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Kettles, U.S. Army, Retired, his inspiring personal account of the Vietnam War led him all the way from a VHP interview in Ypsilanti, Michigan to the Oval Office.
Just one of the approximately 2,300 organizations who record and submit veterans’ oral histories to the Library of Congress, the Ypsilanti District Library and Rotary Club has recorded nearly 125 stories ranging from World War II through the Afghan War. One of their volunteer interviewers, William Vollano, has interviewed veterans since 2006. After he heard Kettles describe the events of May 15, 1967, he immediately sought interviews from fellow veterans of the 176th Aviation Company, the first of whom, Roland Scheck, promptly informed him, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Charlie.”
“Charlie” Kettles, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, earned a Distinguished Service Cross for recovering troops in contact on May 15, 1967. When soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division came under fire from a battalion-sized element of National Liberation Front (NLF) combatants, Kettles lead a flight of UH-1D “Huey” helicopters to recover wounded soldiers and reinforce embattled paratroopers. By the end of the engagement, Kettles’ bullet-ridden Huey helicopter had extracted 44 soldiers, both ground troops and helicopter aircrew, from a deadly ambush enacted by a battalion-sized enemy force.
Speaking to the inspirational potential of veterans’ personal narratives, Vollano took it upon himself to share Kettles’ wartime account with Representative John Dingell (MI-12). Reviewed to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and approved by the U.S. Congress, Kettles received his medal from President Barack Obama earlier this week, nearly 50 years after his helicopter, bleeding fuel and missing its windscreen, touched down with its last load of rescued GIs.
That’s the power of one person’s story. What have you asked the veteran in your life?