Almost 50 years after he braved enemy fire to help rescue 44 of his fellow soldiers surrounded by an ambush, retired Army pilot Lt. Col. Charles Kettles was awarded the Medal of Honor on Monday for his acts of “conspicuous gallantry” during the Vietnam War.

President Barack Obama presented the military’s highest decoration for valor to Kettles at a White House ceremony attended by the retired officer’s family, a few of his Vietnam comrades and the last soldier he saved on that May evening in 1967.

“In a lot of ways, Chuck Kettles is America,” Obama said. “And to the dozens of American soldiers that he saved in Vietnam half a century ago, Chuck is the reason they lived and came home and had children and grandchildren — entire family trees made possible by the actions of this one man.”

Born and raised in eastern Michigan, the son of a World War I and World War II pilot, Kettles served active-duty tours in Korea, Japan and Thailand before fighting in Vietnam. But he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during one battle in particular.

On the morning of May 15, 1967, after learning that a team of 101st Airborne Division troops was pinned by enemy fire in a rural riverbed near Duc Pho, Republic of Vietnam, Kettles volunteered to lead two flights of six UH-1D “Huey” helicopters to carry reinforcements to the embattled American soldiers and evacuate the wounded.

Hours later, according to the Army, Kettles once again returned to the valley with a squadron of helicopters to airlift the remaining 44 troops out of harm’s way.

“Death or injury was all but certain,” Obama said was the reaction of one of Kettles’ fellow airmen following the medal recipient’s actions that day. “And a lesser person would not return.”

But even then, Kettles went back: On the return flight to base, according to an Army description of the day’s events, Kettles learned that eight Americans who had been providing cover for the extraction had been left behind.