Our nation owes a to debt to these heroes of Vietnam. Let’s pay it off

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” I believe these words of St. Francis de Sales are at the heart of the warrior’s spirit. This may sound strange, for surely it’s the strength of overwhelming force that wins wars. But ultimately, it’s a warrior’s gentle love — fighting selflessly for the brother or sister next to you — that achieves lasting peace.

The U.S. Army helicopter aeromedical evacuation crews, which operated under the radio call sign “Dustoff” and evacuated some 900,000 people to safety and lifesaving care during the Vietnam War, flew their unprecedented missions of mercy with this kind of love. It’s time their virtue and valor were recognized properly by a grateful nation. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, some history.  

Before Vietnam, few helicopter rescue missions had been attempted in a war zone. However, the dense jungle landscape and tactics of enemy detachments forced immediate reconsideration of Army precedent. It was decided that to evacuate wounded troops, bulky helicopters – easy targets for enemy fire – were the only way.


Dustoff crews, each consisting of two pilots, a medic and a crew chief, literally rose to the occasion. Unarmed, they took to the sky when summoned, day or night, always operating under the credo “No Compromise, No Rationalization, No Hesitation. Fly the Mission!” Many cannot share their stories because they gave, as President Lincoln said a century before Vietnam, the last full measure of devotion. Men like Maj. Charles L. Kelly.

Kelly was among the first Dustoff pilots killed in action in Vietnam. On July 1, 1964, he refused to withdraw from a hot landing zone, telling ground soldiers admonishing him he’d do so only “when I have your wounded.” A bullet pierced his warrior’s heart, taking his life but not his love. “When I have your wounded” immediately became a Dustoff pilot motto after Kelly’s death.   

Of course, many Dustoff crewmembers did return home, but these heroes were as gallant in wartime as they are disinclined to speak of their daring now. So, what can we Americans do for these, in the truest sense of the word, gentlemen? This is the question the Vietnam Dustoff Association, a pro bono client of my firm, answered, first defining and then instructing with three familiar words: “Fly the mission.”


Our shared mission — lobbying Congress to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the United States Army Dustoff crews of the Vietnam War -– is simple to state but difficult to achieve. Led by original cosponsoring Senators John Cornyn and Elizabeth Warren, we have obtained the requisite 67 cosponsors for our bill in the Senate, a rare instance of bipartisanship in the 118th Congress. But our work is far from done.

Passage of the Vietnam War Congressional Gold Medal Act requires the same supermajority support in the House of Representatives. There, Representatives Derek Kilmer and Cathy McMorris Rodgers are lead cosponsors, but we need more additional cosponsors. Many more.   

Congressional Gold Medal supermajority requirements are a soaring standard, but one that befits our nation’s highest expression of appreciation for distinguished achievement. Besides, numbers that seem daunting to pro bono lawyers hardly blanch Operation Dustoff veterans themselves.


During the Vietnam War, to be a Dustoff crew member was to accept a 1 in 3 chance of being killed or wounded. Those are daunting numbers. This is simply a nation showing its gratitude.    

Progress for these heroes has been made, but time grows short. By summer, House members will be campaigning in their districts for reelection. What better success to tout on the hustings than cosponsorship of such worthy legislation as H.R. 1015?

Here’s what you can do: Call your Representative in the House and ask him or her to cosponsor H.R. 1015. If your representative asks you why, point out the necessary conclusion from a song you know by heart.  

 In “America the Beautiful,” we laud our nation’s heroes, those “who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.” If Dustoff crews, who so loved their wounded, and so cherished mercy in the risks they took to evacuate them, are not these heroes, then nobody is.

That is why the House must act. Our republic is what it celebrates, not only in song of our highest ideals, but also in recognition of countrymen who live them fully. A nation that properly honors its heroes will always find them in abundance when it needs them most.

For the Dustoff crews, the mission is accomplished, but our nation’s duty remains. The House should follow the Senate’s lead and pass H.R. 1015. Gratitude will ensure that the uniquely American beauty of their gentle and merciful love will never fade.

Editor’s note: The author is a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, which is providing pro bono assistance to the Vietnam Dustoff Association in support of lobbying efforts to pass the Dustoff Crews of the Vietnam War Congressional Gold Medal Act.