There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. –John 15:13 NLT
In 1964 Major Charles Kelly served as the commanding officer of the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) in Vietnam. With only five aging UH-1’s, known as “Hueys,” the 57th’s primary mission was to recover wounded US soldiers.
Under Kelly’s leadership, the medical evacuation program grew and acquired the name “Dustoff,” taken from Vietnam’s red dust that swirled and dusted everything within range when the rotors churned.
Kelly was a soldier’s soldier, a man who stuck his neck out for what he believed. Wounded in World War II, Kelly almost died from his gunshot wounds. But this did little to deter him from doing what he felt he was called to do.
“He was morally and physically fearless,” wrote Major General (ret.) Patrick Brady in his article, “The Decline of Dustoff,” for The American Legion online magazine (June 20, 2013). Brady served in Kelly’s unit and, when Kelly was killed, took over leadership of the 57th.
Kelly was court-martialed three times, Brady reports, but he “cared more about doing what was right than about his career.”
He was called “Crazy Man” and “Mad Man” for his willingness to take on dangerous missions to rescue the wounded and fly at night, which up until Kelly took over, just wasn’t done. But Kelly knew it was vital to get medical help to the wounded as soon as possible.
“Why must a patient wait until sunup when helicopters fly just as well – actually better – at night, and the crew is safer from enemy fire?” Brady noted.
On July 1, 1964, Kelly flew his final mission, to what was supposed to be a secure area. Instead he flew into a “hot” spot, an area under heavy enemy fire. He was warned to back off, but Kelly refused.
“When I have your wounded,” he replied.
A few moments later an enemy bullet pierced his heart.
The next day that very bullet was dropped on Brady’s desk.
“Now are you going to stop flying so aggressively?” he was asked.
Brady grasped the bullet. “We are going to keep flying exactly the way Kelly taught us to fly, without hesitation, anytime, anywhere.”
“Inspired by Kelly,” Brady wrote, “Dustoff became the most revered and effective battlefield operating system in Vietnam, with close to one million souls rescued and unprecedented survival rates.”
Former Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams praised Dustoff: “Courage above and beyond the call of duty was sort of routine for them. It was a daily thing, part of the way they lived.”
Kelly was posthumously awarded the US Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award that can be given to a member of the US Army for “extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force.”
“Greater love has no man than this,” Jesus said, “that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 RSV).
Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, a day set aside to honor America’s veterans for “their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”
Let us remember the veterans among us, as well as those who have passed away and especially those who gave their lives in service to their country.
Thank you, honored men and women, for your service!
Thank you, Lord, for the men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for their country. They remind us of Your Son, who gave His life so others might live with You forever. Amen.
Read and meditate on John 15:9–17.
© 2018 Michele Huey. All rights reserved.
Image from The American Legion online magazine, June 20, 2013, “The Decline of Dustoff”