“Hero” is a word we throw around all too often these days. It seems we bestow that title upon anyone we feel that has done something even slightly significant or has sacrificed something. Some use it as a mental bandage by attaching it to someone in the wake of a great loss. Not to sound unsympathetic, but that situation deserves another word. A “Hero” is something different. Just because someone shows up doesn’t mean they get a ribbon, just because someone survived something challenging or horrible, doesn’t mean they’ve done something more extraordinary then just surviving (humans are actually pretty good at that), but “Hero”? Lets’ not water down the meaning of that label; let’s not confuse what it means to be so dedicated to something so selfless that it would actually deserve the honor of that title. These were some of the opening sentiments of the United States Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, this past Veteran’s Day at the Pentagon as she introduced the film, “When I Have Your Wounded” a documentary about the Dustoff missions featuring our Grandfather, Charles L. Kelly.
As kids, my brother, my cousins, and I would play army at our grandmother house; we’d dig through old trunks and pull out flight suits, jackets, and military patches, which we’d pin to our shirts. We’d kick ant piles in oversized jungle boots and break-dance in fatigues. I remember thinking how cool it was that my cousin plugged in grandpa’s flight helmet to his boom box and used it as earphones. We all marveled at the giant display case of medals on the wall, which included the Distinguished Service cross, The Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Hearts, and even the Vietnamese medal of honor. Once in a while grandma would show us newspaper clippings, articles, and letters about our grandfather. A heliport in Texas, a classroom in Alabama, a street in Colorado, a high school football stadium in Georgia have been named after him; he’s been the subject of many a chapter in different books and numerous websites. There were people that would visit, there were amazing stories, and their memories of the man both as a soldier and a father. I don’t recall grandma calling him a hero, we knew he was, but to her, he was much, much, more than that.
Charles L. Kelly grew up in Sylvania Ga. When WWII, came, he lied about his age and joined the army infantry at age 15. He received his first purple heart during that time when he was shot in the leg. He also served in the Korean War. When Kelly got to Vietnam he was assigned the developing the medical evacuation unit loosely referred to as “Dustoff”. He was granted 5 Huey helicopters, which he had to constantly fight for, as well as pieces and parts to keep them going. Kelly set new standards for flying, often by breaking protocol or by bucking his superiors.
Because of the huge risks and innovations unthinkable at the time the Dustoff unit became known to the soldiers as, “Kelly’s Crazies”, He was often called “Mad-Man Kelly” or “Combat Kelly”. They would fly at night without lights just above the tree line. They would fly into a firefight unarmed, sideways, taking fire from the bottom while shielding and pulling in the wounded on the other side. They would hover into small openings in the jungle lowering rescue baskets to load the wounded while the blades of the helicopter would whorl dangerously just inches away from tree trunks, (One medic in the film recalls tree bark being chipped away by the blades). While most soldiers saw action maybe 3 times a week, Kelly’s men would see it 3 times a day and to a wounded soldier, the sound of those blades approaching were on par with the wings of angels. They were constantly replacing and repairing the bullet ridden and banged up Hueys, but within months they had a new system down and when they got the call they could be loaded, in the air, and on the way within 6 minutes. This “golden hour” system was unlike anything that had been done before; it revolutionized the history of field evacuation and would ultimately save hundreds of thousands of lives.
On July 1st 1964 Major Kelly was flying into a gun battle, with heavy fighting and casualties. Orders came over the radio telling Kelly to abort; the battle was too intense, my grandfather responded, “When I Have Your Wounded”. A moment later a bullet came through the lower window and pierced his heart.
As we sat in the auditorium somewhere in the belly of the Pentagon watching this documentary; “When I Have Your Wounded”, the thought kept echoing through my mind, here is a man who disobeyed orders fighting for a unit that risked everything just to help those who were injured while following orders. Here is a man who fiercely went into battle, not to take lives, but to save them. This man was the hero that saved other heroes. And on the other side of that thought, as we sat with my mother, my aunt, and my uncle, and pictures of them as children moved across the screen, I contemplated what they had lost and what they had been given. Here was their father; the man they were supposed to look to for guidance, advice, and protection. The man that would have woken them up for school, taught them to drive, and held their first born. He was taken from them before he could do any of those things. But here he is, still affecting them, and affecting their children in one of the most honorable ways possible; teaching us courage, valor, and respect for human life. Teaching us the meaning of the word “Hero”. Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his fellow man.
Patrick Fries, Cheryl Fries, (Arrowhead films) and the Dustoff Association Director Dan Gower, did an outstanding job on the film.* Its such an incredible story with so many possible narratives to follow. Patrick (The Director) was extremely passionate about this project and after years in the making I could tell he and his crew were very humbled and proud to have it screened. My uncle, Charles L. Kelly Jr., was asked to be the narrator in the film, which really made it that much more personal. What an amazing and difficult honor, to tell the story of your father whom you’re so proud of, but never knew. Though the story ark was based around Major Kelly and he vision, the film went into so many other lives of people who were impacted and changed by the Dustoff Missions. After Kelly was killed in battle Capt. Brady (now a 2-star General and medal of honor recipient) picked up the torch. Brady flew under Kelly and now in command of the unit, he pushed it even further. General Brady** is a gifted speaker and when interviewed for the film it was pretty amazing to hear first hand about the early Dustoff missions***. Many of the people interviewed have since passed on, others remember being picked up and were thankful for being returned to their family, or the family they now have that may not have been. The film flowed into the present day where current Dustoff units are deployed and are still following the protocol and standards set forth by our grandfather: “No Compromise! No Rationalization! No Hesitation! Fly the Mission!” He is a legend among them, a hero.
We stayed a few more days and tooled around DC, we visited The Wall, with several family members and Ernie Sylvester, one of Grandpa Kelly’s co-pilots. We went to the American History Museum where they have an authentic Huey Helicopter in their Vietnam section. And then there was Arlington, what a sobering place****. Nothing about war makes sense in place like this. It’s horrible. It’s people like Charles Kelly that kindles the idea of hope for us all. Selfless acts of courage and kindness. I wish I had known my grandfather, I wish I would have had time to spend with him. He was focused and serious man, a man of great discipline and character; I would have liked the chance to make him laugh.
*Years ago Patrick & crew shot a lower budget film called “In the Shadow of the Blade” where they flew an old Huey helicopter across country meeting & interview vets that were involved with the Dustoff missions.
**General Brady has written an amazing book about Dustoff and the Vietnam War, “Dead Men Flying”
*** General Brady was once took on so much enemy fire, that 3 different helicopters were disabled in one day.
**** Currently 25-28 funerals are held every day at Arlington Cemetery.
Slide show: A few more shots from the event & Washington. (if slide show does not load, please refresh page, or go to full gallery Here)