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When I Have Your Wounded: The Dustoff Legacy, DVD

 directed by Patrick Fries, Arrowhead Films, 2013

Part recruiting ad and part personal tribute to the narrator’s father, medevac pioneer Major Charles L. Kelly, When I Have Your Wounded is also a compelling documentary about the vital work performed by helicopter crews to rush wounded soldiers and civilians to medical facilities. It falls somewhat short of being a comprehensive history of medevac, but that seems to have been a secondary goal behind documenting what the production team had from the interviews it conducted.

A history of medevac might have begun with Napoleon’s surgeon in chief, Baron Dominque Larrey, who revolutionized field surgery with his concepts of triage and above all of rapid recovery from the battlefield, for which he devised horse-drawn “flying ambulances” with four-man teams similar in principle to those aboard helicopters today. The story does begin with the first helicopter rescue during World War II, but gives it astonishingly short shrift, considering that, after learning of a plane crash in Japanese-held Burma on April 21, 1944, 2nd Lt. Carter Harman had to make several hops to get his Sikorsky YR-4B to the 1st Air Commando Group’s secret airstrip in enemy territory, then made four trips from there between April 25 and 26 in order to recover the American pilot and four injured British soldiers, one at a time. As precedents go for dustoff, this example, as epic as it was early, deserves a bit more attention.

But it is firsthand accounts that the producers of When I Have Your Wounded wanted, so things begin in earnest in Korea, with testimonials from the lone pilots who gingerly cajoled their quirky Bell H-13s to and from the battlefields with two evacuees under protective pods above each skid. The Bell UH-1B, introduced in Vietnam, was a comparative dream to handle and could carry a medical team as well as more wounded, but the first unit to arrive in-country, the 57th Medical Company, only had five aircraft and a skeptical command that was more inclined to use its Hueys for other purposes. Major Charles M. Kelly would have none of that, and soon he and his men proved the medevacs’ worth with a zeal summed up in his reply to a hotly engaged ground unit’s warning that he leave the area: “When I have your wounded.” The 57th came to be known to the grunts as “Kelly’s Crazies” because of the relentlessness with which its choppers went in harm’s way. The nickname evolved from a quip to an expression of profound respect— especially after Kelly became the first fatality in the line of lifesaving duty.

Almost half the DVD focuses on Vietnam and the other half skips around among earlier and subsequent conflicts, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where a new generation of crew personnel—male and female—upholds the traditions against new enemies and new omnipresent hazards, from improvised explosive devices to the blinding Afghan dust. It may not be quite historically comprehensive, but veterans of the wars it covers, especially those who owe their lives to the dustoff teams, will probably not care.


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.