BILLINGS – Rick Ketterling isn’t a showy guy. Perhaps that’s part of the reason he flew under the military’s radar for so long.
U.S. Army Cpl. Ketterling, who lives in Billings, was wounded when a howitzer blew up in Vietnam and ignored his own severe burns to carry a dead comrade back to their command post.
On Thursday, he was finally awarded military honors for his actions. A man of few words, he offered only brief remarks during the ceremony outside the Yellowstone County Courthouse.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Ketterling earned a Purple Heart and several other awards.
“You rose above horrific events,” said Sen. Steve Daines, who presented the medals. “You demonstrated valor when you did not leave Farmer (the dead soldier) behind.”
In February 1971 in the Au Shaw Valley, a 175 mm howitzer blew up because of a manufacturing defect, injuring several soldiers and killing one. Ketterling was thrown over a protective berm and knocked unconscious. He suffered severe burns and a perforated eardrum but crawled back to the firing position and helped another wounded soldier orient himself. He then carried the dead soldier back to the command post.
Ketterling was initially treated at his position but was soon flown to a burn unit in Japan and later received more treatment in the United States before he was discharged. That medical whirlwind is likely why he slipped through the cracks and wasn’t awarded a medal.
“It is never too late to bestow upon a soldier what they have earned,” said George Blackard, the District 11 commander for the American Legion Department of Montana.
Ketterling’s wife, Brenda, attended the ceremony, as did several family members. It took place on the courthouse lawn in front of the Montana Purple Heart Memorial, which honors every Montanan who has received a Purple Heart.
“Each one of those names has a mother, a daughter, a cousin, a friend,” Daines said.
Ketterling also received an Army Good Conduct Medal, which is awarded for exemplary conduct, efficiency and fidelity during a period of service, a Vietnam Service Medal with one Bronze Star, which is awarded to all service members of the U.S. Armed Forces who served in Vietnam (stars reflect participation in or support of operations in the 17 designated Vietnam Conflict campaigns) and a Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Citation with Palm Device, which was awarded by the Republic of Vietnam for recognition of deeds of valor or heroic conduct while in combat with the enemy.
He was also given a Cold War Certificate, which is awarded in recognition of service during the period of the Cold War in promoting peace and stability.
“More often than not, (veterans) are not the type to make a big deal out of what they have done,” Blackard said.
But more than 40 years later, Ketterling received what he earned.
U.S. Army Cpl. Ketterling, who lives in Billings, was wounded when a Howitzer blew up in Vietnam and ignored his own severe burns to carry a dead comrade back to their command post.