(This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)
The service’s top general has selected a biography written by an Air Force reservist for inclusion on this year’s Air Force Chief of Staff Reading List.
“At All Costs” by Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti tells the life and death story of Medal of Honor recipient Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. “Dick” Etchberger. It’s Proietti’s first book and has a narrative fit for Hollywood.
Etchberger was a ground radar superintendent during the Vietnam War and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2010, more than 40 years after he was killed in March 1968. He was shot while riding in a rescue helicopter following an overnight battle at a mountaintop in Laos, where he helped maintain a secret radar site that aided the U.S. bombing campaign in North Vietnam.
Gen. Mark A. Welsh III chose the book for the list, which is part of the CSAF Professional Reading Program created in 1996 by Gen. Ronald Fogleman to develop a common frame of reference among Air Force members.
From article to book
Proietti, an individual mobilization augmentee, began his journey to write “At All Costs” in 2008 while filling in as chief of the Air Force news team in Washington, D.C. The staff heard rumblings that Etchberger might be nominated for the Medal of Honor. He asked his team of junior writers if anyone was interested in researching and preparing an article on the Vietnam War hero. Knowing their supervisor was a history buff, they suggested he take it on himself.
As Proietti began learning more about Etchberger, he became intrigued with the life and career of the man who was credited with saving the lives of two fellow Airmen during the battle for Lima Site 85, one of dozens of dirt airstrips maintained by the CIA as part of its Air America network.
He started his research by traveling to Etchberger’s hometown in Hamburg, Pennsylvania. It was there he met high school friends and family members of the Airman. What he learned was that the future Medal of Honor recipient led a life focused on helping others long before his actions that earned him the nation’s highest honor for military valor.
“I got really excited about the story, and I knew one (article) just wouldn’t be enough,” Proietti said.
From his initial research, Proietti crafted a three-part series on his own time after his Washington duty orders ended. He would have been done with the story at that point except Cory Etchberger, one of the late chief’s three sons, reached out to him to ask if he was interested in working with him to write a book about his father. Cory said he contacted Proietti after reading his articles.
“Lots of people have written articles about Dad, but Matt is the only one who got every detail right,” he said.
Cory, a 25-year veteran of the college lectern, started work on the book in 2006 and had done research, gathered a contact list and developed an outline. However, because he lacked a strong writing background, he knew he would need some help. He talked to his brother, Richard, and they agreed that Proietti was the man for the job.
Despite his rookie status as an author, Proietti, a 31-year veteran of the public affairs career field, had plenty of writing experience to qualify him for the job. He began writing in grade school, and when the Air Force gave him the opportunity to write professionally, he couldn’t believe it.
“Not a week goes by that I’m not thankful to the Air Force for giving me the opportunity to write,” Proietti said.
Behind the medal
The initial plan was for Proietti and Cory to co-write the book, but as the project progressed, they decided it would be best for the Air Force writer to take over the pen. He spent the next several years doing research, spending hours at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, and interviewing and writing letters with Etchberger’s former supervisors and the men whose lives he saved, including retired Tech. Sgt. John G. Daniel of La Junta, Colorado.
“He should have a 55-gallon drum full of medals. I wouldn’t be alive without him,” Daniel said.
Two years after Proietti started his research, President Barack Obama approved the Medal of Honor for Etchberger, presenting it to his sons during a White House ceremony Sept. 21, 2010.
In the hours preceding his death, Etchberger defended the Lima Site 85 radar camp against an attack from North Vietnamese special forces. Etchberger used a handheld radio to call for a rescue and air strikes. According to Daniel, they basically had to call air strikes in on themselves, figuring they were dead men anyway.
Etchberger, Daniel and Capt. Stan Sliz survived the night by returning small arms fire and exchanging grenades with the enemy. When the light of day finally brought a CIA rescue chopper, Etchberger repeatedly exposed himself to heavy fire while helping Daniel and Sliz, both of whom had suffered serious injuries, onto an Air America rescue helicopter. Daniel lost consciousness as soon as he was aboard.
After ensuring his men were safely loaded, Etchberger joined them. As the helicopter peeled away, an enemy round pierced the floor and hit Etchberger, resulting in serious internal injuries and bleeding. He died by the time the aircraft reached safety.
Daniel, who was unconscious until the next day, was confused by the news of Etchberger’s death.
“It didn’t make sense to me. He was the only one who wasn’t injured (that night). I thought, ‘what the hell?’” Daniel said. “He told me, ‘I’ll be right up. I’ll see you in a minute.’”
Proietti, who traveled on military business a good deal over the last five years, said he would work on the story everywhere he went. The biography was written on airplanes, in hotel rooms and on weekends at his home in the hills outside of Sacramento, California.
On Dec. 1, 2014, Proietti said he officially finished writing and began to proofread. Fellow public affairs IMA Senior Master Sgt. Ray Sarracino created the cover illustration, which features a full-length photograph of Etchberger in his uniform, the Medal of Honor and a map of Laos and North Vietnam. The book went to press in early 2015.
With the first edition of the book in print, Proiett said he’s now working on a screen adaptation and will have a draft version of a script completed this spring.