Remembering veteran life-savers

Terry Garlock's picture

Each year when Veterans Day comes again to honor those who served their country, my mind often drifts to those who served in the life-saving business, the medics, helicopter crews, doctors and nurses who make a memorable difference in the lives of so many.

My war was Vietnam, in which the helicopter revolutionized medical treatment of our wounded. For the first time, combat troops had the comfort of knowing if they were hit in the filth of the jungle in the middle of nowhere, medevac helicopter crews known as “Dustoff” would pull out all the stops to pick them up and deliver them to doctors, nurses and sterile operating rooms before an hour had passed.

Many lived who would have died, were it not for Dustoff pilots like Ron Current, who lives in Mableton, and Alan Walsh, who lives in Peachtree City.

Large red crosses clearly marked Dustoff as non-combatant, and also made a perfect bullseye for enemy guns, so Dustoff missions usually had gunship cover as they touched down in a landing zone or hovered above the jungle to drop a penetrator cable from a hoist as far as 250 feet down to pull up the wounded.

As a gunship pilot I sometimes covered Dustoff. Hoist missions required intense Dustoff pilot concentration to hold the helicopter in a hover, sometimes in disorienting conditions like bad weather at night, often struggling to stay up with underpowered turbines, sometimes having to nestle down into the trees when the cable was too short while intently watching clearance of the main rotor and especially the more fragile tail rotor, trying to remain stationary to avoid banging up the wounded as they were hoisted up through the trees.

When the ground unit was in contact with the enemy, hoist missions were usually ruled out because Dustoff was a sitting duck while hoisting up wounded. But like the rest of us flying helicopters, Dustoff pilots sometimes made their own rules.

Nick Donvito of Camillus in upstate New York was an 18-year-old grunt caught by surprise in a furious jungle firefight near Tay Ninh when he was hit in the face, the arm and rather badly in the leg. Nick tells the story of the astounding courage of the Dustoff crew pulling him up through the jungle trees in a steel cage on a hoist while enemy rounds zinged by his head and whacked through the helicopter.

Nick says he was most scared after they pulled him into the helicopter because they stayed in a hover and pulled up six more wounded while taking fire.

While the pilots focused on the aircraft controls and the crew managed the hoist and furiously applied bandages, tourniquets and life-saving fluids, they pulled up three guys Nick didn’t know plus Jerry White, Art (Doc) McGary and the last guy in, Michael McGhie, who pushed himself onto Nick’s wounded leg and made him scream. Nick says his Vietnam tour will never be complete until he finds that Dustoff crew to personally deliver his respects.

Norm McDonald of Orem, Utah, took a large piece of mortar shrapnel in the foot when the enemy attacked a firebase near Xuan Loc east of Saigon. The nurses on his hospital ward tended his wound with care every day, a wound that was minor in comparison to the relentless stream of broken young men that overworked the medical staff.

One night Norm woke up in the wee hours in his hospital bed, hearing sounds of doctors and nurses gathered around a seriously wounded patient’s bed as they worked frantically on him. Norm dozed off after a while and when he later awoke that patient’s bed was gone; he knew the man had died.

In the early morning dark and quiet, he heard the soft sounds of sobbing. He grabbed the ward guitar and rolled down to the nurses’ station in his wheelchair, where the charge nurse was embarrassed to be discovered in an emotional moment.

Norm said he never did anything like that before, but he wheeled over next to her and put his arm around her. She leaned over on him in his wheelchair and he held her for a few minutes while she cried.

Then she straightened up in her chair and Norm played some soft stuff for her on the guitar, rifts and chords and pieces of melodies, while she started on her paperwork. Norm says they never spoke about it.

Donna Rowe of Marietta was a captain in charge of the triage unit at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. She is fiercely proud of her medical staff and the record they earned — they never lost a single patient while in the triage unit’s care during Donna’s 12-month tour.

Soldiers sometimes died before arriving from a battle on the helicopter pad. Sometimes after leaving triage, they died in surgery or later from complications, but Donna’s triage unit moved heaven and earth to keep every one of them alive while in their transitory care.

When I was shot down in December 1969, my back was broken and my legs paralyzed. Dustoff picked me up and delivered me to the 24th Evac Hospital in Long Binh, where a doctor told me before surgery that he didn’t know if I would walk again but he would do his best.

His best was superb, I recovered the use of my legs and other things, and I have always wished I knew the doc’s name so I could track him down to shake his hand.

After surgery and a couple weeks of stabilizing, I was flown to a hospital in Japan on an Air Force C-141 hospital aircraft with stacked litters. During the flight the vibrations made my back hurt so bad I had tears running down my face and my nurse, who couldn’t give me a pain shot for another hour, sat with me for a little while, holding my hand and talking to me to take my mind off the pain. Sometimes little things make a permanent mark in our memory.

In those days nearly all nurses were women, but that has certainly changed and the medical machine has had four decades of improvement. One thing remains the same — there is much to admire in these medical professionals who work in time pressure and emotional stress every day. Here’s just one example of what they now deal with.

On July 2, 2006, U.S. Army Sgt. Kevin McMullen of Peachtree City was one of the crew in a Humvee in Kirkuk, Iraq, when it was hit by a roadside explosive device on its left side. He had to pry open the rear door to help a man whose left leg was gone below the knee and his right leg shredded.

A captain had pulled out Nick, the driver, whose leg had been blown off, and when he yelled for help, Sgt. McMullen rushed to apply a tourniquet and help load him on a backboard. The journey of two critically wounded men through the medical system was about to begin, along with the challenges to those who would care for them.

Over 30,000 U.S. service members have been wounded since the Iraq war began and nearly 4,400 wounded so far in Afghanistan. Each one has a story, many of them including dedicated care by medical staff they will never forget.

It has been 40 years since my war, and we remember it like yesterday. As long as we live, some of our stories will be remembering with gratitude our brothers and sisters on the medical side who sometimes risked their necks to rescue us, and who sometimes seemed able to work miracles to put us back together.

The Dustoff crews, doctors and nurses of today are making new memories; I wonder if they have any idea that they will be remembered for the rest of their patients’ lives.

[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City. His email is]

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Tug13's picture
Submitted by Tug13 on Wed, 11/11/2009 - 8:53am.

Thank you Mr. Garlock, Hutch, Tincan, Hack. I appreciate all of you who served to protect us.

Have a great day.

Tug Smiling

hutch866's picture
Submitted by hutch866 on Wed, 11/11/2009 - 11:05am.

You're Welcome.

I yam what I yam....Popeye

hutch866's picture
Submitted by hutch866 on Wed, 11/11/2009 - 11:04am.

Just attended a great Veteran's Day Program at Bennett's Mill Middle and it was a ceremony and program. The guest of honor was Marine Corporal Hurb Thompson. A Survivor of Iwo Jima {albeit a wounded survivor} Nice talk of his experiences there, he made it 17 days before a mortar took him out. Thank you Hurb, for a great job, overseas and at Bennett's Mill. Personally I think I would have rather faced the japs then stood up in front all those people and made a speech. Thank you to all our Vets here on the "C".

Submitted by MYTMITE on Wed, 11/11/2009 - 12:16am.

to the brave men and women who serve or have served in our military. Their bravery has given us the freedom to speak our minds, vote for the candidates of our choice and worship as we please. Many of these brave Americans voted with their lives and we should never forget their sacrifices and those of their families. God Bless Them All.

Git Real's picture
Submitted by Git Real on Tue, 11/10/2009 - 9:56pm.


Thanks for the great piece. Thanks for reminding us of what many of our neighbors have done primarily in the name of freedom and most often, and with good intention, in helping repressed peoples around the world. Whether the results turned out positive or negative in the conflicts you guys fought in; Our veterans have served us bravely, represented us well, and sacrificed their blood, lives and too often their family and careers for our country.

I just hope those that love to trash on you and your views will take the time this week to show their appreciation for guys like you, Lt. Dan Berschinski, Ron Current, Alan Walsh, Nick Donvito, Hutch, TinCan, Wedge, and many others of our veteran heroes that grace this site.

Each one of us can add Dads, Uncles, Grandparents, and brothers and sisters to the list with you guys who have served us well.

Thanks man!!!! Salud.....

For what it is worth and with utmost respect,

Obama.... The Bernie Madoff Of Washington

Submitted by Bonkers on Wed, 11/11/2009 - 6:28am.

Few if any kids 17-19 join the military to "help repressed people around the world."

There are many reasons to join but that ain't one of em! Wasn't mine anyway. I don't remember if I knew that there was a war going on!
I needed a job and a change---I got it.

We need to make sure we keep them out of such places as the middle east and take care of their needs without too much "bluster" about it.

It still gripes me to stand up when some joker asks us veterans to stand for a "big" hand--that is a big help!

For what it is worth and with utmost respect!

S. Lindsey's picture
Submitted by S. Lindsey on Tue, 11/10/2009 - 10:06pm.

I hope that we will all remember the sacrifice and make that sacrifice mean something..

WE owe our Country and our Liberities to our Military.. and they are owed our respect..

"A Government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have." Thomas Jefferson

Submitted by USArmybrat on Wed, 11/11/2009 - 12:01am.

Thank you for your service and your unending love of this country. Thanks to Git and S. Lindsey, for your comments. I know you guys love this country. And thanks to my Dad, another Vietnam Vet, that gave so much for his country! We will never forget.

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