The Army's 57th Medical Company, which helped save hundreds of thousands of lives in wars and hurricanes, is being disbanded and spread among other units as part of the Pentagon's military reorganization plan.
The company's Huey helicopters evacuated more than 100,000 casualties in Vietnam alone. In Iraq, the 57th evacuated more than 4,500 troops, Iraqi civilians and U.S. contractors. The unit also played a major role after devastating hurricanes Fran, Floyd and Katrina.
A disbanding ceremony held Friday was bittersweet for company veterans, as Vietnam vets mixed with Grenada and Desert Storm vets and men and women of the unit who are just back from their second tour of duty in Iraq.
Standing by its modern Black Hawk, a crew explained the fancy flight and medical systems.
The pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kevin Moore, 30, said the Vietnam war was obviously a different era. The crews in Iraq faced different threats, from sandstorms to extraordinary heat to insurgents plotting specifically to take down medical flights.
Nearby, retired 1st Sgt. Charles Allen, 72, shook his head as a crew chief showed off the Black Hawk's high-tech composite armor.
"See, we couldn't have that," Allen said. "We had those Hueys loaded so heavy sometimes we'd have to run along side 'em until they were going, and then jump in."
In 1962 the 57th was the first full medevac unit sent to Vietnam, and the first to use the UH-1 "Huey."
Maj. Charles "Combat" Kelly took command at the beginning of 1964, when there weren't many U.S. troops in Vietnam. The unit spent much of its time picking up South Vietnamese wounded.
Soon, American troops began to arrive in ever-greater numbers, the fighting intensified, and missions became so harrowing that several of the unit's choppers might be shot down in a single day.
"Dustoff," the call sign of the 57th Medical Company, quickly became the nearly universal word for medical evacuation by helicopter. The word became much more than that for men lying in the rice paddies, jungle and mountaintops as their lives leaked away. An inbound dustoff meant the odds had just shifted in their favor.
The man credited with founding Dustoff, 57th commander, Maj. Charles "Combat" Kelly, also set the tone for medevac missions. He did it with a single phrase July 1, 1964, minutes before he was shot to death.
Told repeatedly to abort his mission because incoming fire was too intense, Kelly replied coolly that he would leave only "When I have your wounded."
A superior officer later handed a 57th officer the fatal bullet and said the unit should stop flying dangerous missions. The man replied that it would continue to follow Kelly's example.
Kelly's son, Charles Kelly Jr., at Friday's ceremony criticized the Army for disbanding the unit and walking away from such an iconic tradition in the middle of a war.
Kelly was 3 years old when his father was killed. He told the soldiers they should take the 57th's spirit to their new units.
"Your enemy is death itself," he said, holding up a handful of his father's letters from Vietnam and Korea. "That's why you fly, so that these letters home aren't the last letters home."