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Vietnam vet owes his life to another's moment of bravery

By Jim Spellman, CNN
John Daniel, shown at his Colorado home, was saved by Richard Etchberger, who was awarded the Medal of Honor today.
John Daniel, shown at his Colorado home, was saved by Richard Etchberger, who was awarded the Medal of Honor today.
  • Richard Etchberger lost his life in 1968 saving fellow airmen, including John Daniel
  • Etchberger was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor today for his bravery
  • Daniel, 71, has three grown kids, 13, grandkids and a great-grandchild
  • He says Etchberger's "presence is in my life every day"

La Junta, Colorado (CNN) -- That morning in March 1968 played out like a Hollywood movie: A secret CIA radar station on the top of a mountain in Laos, manned by a small group of Air Force airmen, is overrun by Vietnamese soldiers.

One by one, Americans are killed until only four remain.

As the sun peeks above the jungle, an American helicopter drops a rescue sling while hovering over the remaining airmen.

Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger loads the wounded Americans one by one into the chopper before climbing in himself.

As the helicopter roars off, a stray bullet pierces it and hits Etchberger. The men he saved would make it home, but Etchberger wouldn't.

Video: Medal of Honor hero
Video: Son 'humbly proud' of hero father

He died on the floor of the chopper as it headed off to safety.

Fade to black. Roll credits.

Except that is where this story really begins for John Daniel.

In his last memory of that day, Etchberger is alive and hoisting Daniel, who was shot in both legs, into the helicopter. Daniel passed out, and it wasn't until he woke up at Udorn Air Base in Thailand that he learned that his friend Dick had died saving his life.

Today, Etchberger posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for bravery. His family accepted the award from President Obama at a White House ceremony.

Daniel has struggled to make sense of the randomness of that day.

"It's a matter of inches. It could have been anybody, or nobody," he said. "When a round comes through the bottom of a helicopter, it doesn't know who it's going to hit."

But it was Dick Etchberger and not John Daniel who died that day, and ever since, Daniel has wondered why fate spared him.

"It was a burden," he explained. "You say, 'Why me? Why am I still alive? The rest of them are dead, how did I manage to make it out alive?'

"You never know who is going or who is not going, but I know I would have gone if it hadn't of been for Dick getting me onto that chopper."

Now 71, Daniel has lived a good life. He stayed in the Air Force until 1979, then spent a few years in the electronics business before opening a bar and doing some accounting. Now he is mostly retired.

He was present at the White House on Tuesday when Obama gave the Medal of Honor to Etchberger's family.

He lives in a tidy home in small-town Colorado with his wife. He has three grown kids, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

"I have one grandchild to carry on my status. He's in the Air Force, active duty," he said.

You say, 'Why me? Why am I still alive? The rest of them are dead, how did I manage to make it out alive?'
--Retired Sgt. John Daniel, Vietnam veteran
  • Vietnam War
  • U.S. Air Force
  • Laos

A framed photo of that grandson, Airman 1st Class Jerry W. Daniel, sits on a shelf in the living room alongside a painting depicting his grandfather being hoisted into the helicopter as Etchberger looks on: an artist's rendering of his last memory of Etchberger.

Daniel knows that if not for the bravery of Etchberger 42 years ago, it could easily be someone else sitting in this living room, living this life.

"I don't know why me, but it is," he said. "And Dick's presence is in my life every day."

He said he thinks back often to his last moments with Dick Etchberger.

"I said 'Dick, Dick, we're not going to get out of here!' and he says, 'I know, say your last prayers, that's all you can do.' "

Daniel's prayers were answered that day in Laos. Today, he prays for the wisdom to make good on a debt he can never repay.

"It has to be that God is not done with me on the face of the earth yet. Thanks to Dick Etchberger, I'm still alive to do something," he said.