Dustoff salute: Rusty Eagles honor fallen Vietnam helicopter mates

By Craig Anderson
Posted 9/25/21

DOVER — Just like 50 years or so ago, the experience in the Vietnam War was a shared one this past week.

Members of “Dustoff” helicopter crews reminisced in a reunion billed as …

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Dustoff salute: Rusty Eagles honor fallen Vietnam helicopter mates

Posted

DOVER — Just like 50 years or so ago, the experience in the Vietnam War was a shared one this past week.

Members of “Dustoff” helicopter crews reminisced in a reunion billed as the “Gathering of Rusty Eagles.”

On Saturday at Kent County Veterans Memorial Park, the veterans paid tribute to their aerial teammates who died while serving their country.

Past members of Huey medevac helicopter teams were present as memorial bricks with the names of fallen comrades on them were dedicated at the site.

During the gathering, according to ex-Huey pilot Steve Vermillion of Puyallup, Wash., there were ample memories to discuss.

“We all flew with each other and our peers,” he said. “We were all talking about our stories, our recollections. We’re talking about ‘Hey, were you on this mission?,’ ‘Yeah I think it was.”

Meeting again is bittersweet, Mr. Vermillion said.

“It brings back positive memories and some negative memories. We remember those with the names on the bricks as we did today, and there’s a hurt and disappointment that they can’t be here today.”

The radio call signal “Dustoff” was a signal for helicopter units with a sole mission of evacuating wounded from the battlefield. In 11 years, nearly 200 helicopters were lost and 241 crewmen died.

According to a written narrative provided by the Kent County Chapter 850 Vietnam Veterans of America, “From 1962 to 1973, a total of 496,573 missions were flown carrying over 900,000 patients. The average time to transport a wounded patient to a hospital was less than one hour. Less than 1% of American wounded who survived the first 24 hours died.

“ ‘Dustoff’ crews flew virtually unarmed as they attempted to land in some of the tightest and most difficult terrain under enemy fire and in some cases in weather that would ground most aircraft crews.

“When no LZ was available, ‘Dustoff’ would hover at treetop and hoist the wounded from the ground to the helicopter maintaining an easy target for the enemy.”

Keynote speaker Rhona Prescott, who served as an operating room nurse at age 23, described the helicopter members as “More than comrades because the ‘Dustoff’ crews literally handed us the wounded, bloody, screaming kids and we took them to the hospital, so we had a closer camaraderie than any other military specialty unit.

“So being here with them is like ‘Wow they’re my brothers’ so it brings everything back.”

Unless someone had been through it, Ms. Prescott said, it’s difficult to understand “Being in a position where you held lives, literally in your hands and depending on you they either lived or died and that was pretty heavy duty for a kid in her early 20s.”

The 70-minute ceremony drew a crowd of about 125. Boy Scout Owen Caldwell, 10, of Milford, who has raised funds in the past to support the Veterans Memorial Park and Vietnam Veterans Memorial, led the Pledge of Allegiance.