John. C Thomas Jr.

In Vietnam, during a firefight, the most awesome sound a wounded man could hope to hear was that of a Huey Dustoff coming in regardless of the danger. When our troops were wounded, we didn’t have the luxury of time. In prior wars, most of those severely injured would have succumbed to their wounds before ever reaching any meaningful medical help. Vietnam changed all that. We can certainly point to the beginnings of this in Korea but the TV show M.A.S.H. notwithstanding,  “hot”chopper extractions before Vietnam were unheard of.

Each Dustoff  crew was a tightly knit group of four. Two pilots and a crew chief ferried the most important component to the evac- the medic. While a lot of accolades accrue to fearless pilots who could somehow dodge certain death, one and only one job befell the crew chief- that of keeping the Huey airborne and the hoist operational. What few realize is that when airborne, they often were just as much a medic as a mechanic-perhaps more so. It wasn’t like you could hop out on the skid and figure out why the check engine light was blinking red.

We lost one of those crew chiefs Thursday, the 17th. Our numbers are dwindling- and not just Dustoff crews. I mean Vietnam Veterans of all stripes and one of the primary causes is what we ate, breathed and got on us for a year. Some of you, like Bruce McCartney, did it for four years. I did it for two (not as a Dustoff, mind you). The longer we stayed, the exponentially higher risk we incurred that some day Agents Orange, Blue, Pink, Green, White or Purple would catch up to us and give us some heretofore unheard-of disease or cancer. Cancer was what John fell prey to.

I look at Vets in the light of claims they file. I tend to specialize in Hepatitis C but the family of herbicide-related diseases are ones I am well-acquainted with. I have Porphyria Cutanea Tarda-one of the hardest to get service connected for. I know I got it from Agent Blue because I was coughing up blood eleven months into my first tour. The flight surgeon told me the cure was to switch to the newer Marlboro Lights that had just come out. Of course, reducing your diet of herbicides was also a viable alternative. But who among us knew?

John came home to Bruce earlier this year for the last Round Up (no pun intended). He was gradually becoming too weak to care for himself and Bruce graciously offered his home for what would soon inevitably be a hospice setting. Had I been John, I don’t know that I could wish for a better friend than that. To have defied almost certain death for a year creates a bond I cannot describe. As an analogy, imagine standing in the pouring down rain and not being struck by a single drop-only to be hit by lightning fifty years later. Inevitable death, when it arrived decades later, could not sever their bond. And so it came as no surprise when Bruce selflessly fired up his medic skills once again to combat that which he could not deter this time.

Our numbers, as I mentioned, are declining precipitously as the insidious effects of those herbicides work their destruction on us. Congress, and indeed the VA, are debating the merits of adding a few more diseases and maladies to the presumptive list. By the time they do, our numbers will be even fewer. I expect they’ll add Crohn’s disease to the list about five minutes after I punch out.

One thing that seems a constant in this occupation is Bent Brain Syndrome. I would ask why it, too, isn’t presumptive. How many people can you witness die before it snaps that little rubber band in your brainbox? Nevertheless, VA still requires us to be diagnosed by their own shrinks before granting service connection. Woe betideth those who cannot prove their stressor in this regard. In John’s case, I found it impossible to get him an SMC rating commensurate with his level of debility. The answer was that he’d been convinced by VA pukes, as we all are, that there is no higher rating after the 100% P&T at the end of the rainbow.  Had he been inflicted with Diabetes Mellitus 2 and lost the effective use of his lower or upper extremities, SMC R2 would have been a given. As it was, he had only two 100% ratings-PTSD and the lung cancer. He became bedridden at the end but he could never get past SMC M. This is why I advocate for Vets to keep filing like dead Chicago voters. You never know when the IHD is going to hit and filing for it when knocking on Heaven’s door benefits no one-especially you or the wife-san.

So join me and raise your glass in a toast to someone who might have saved your life forty eight years ago- and certainly would have had the call come in to do so- with no qualms for his own safety. To the man who raised and lowered the hoist so that others might live, to the man who stood out on the skids and yelled “clear rotor” to the peter pilot, to the man who held the IV bag for Bruce and could perform CPR in his sleep, to the man who regarded our lives as more important than his own, I salute you John.

Sadly, in this day and age, such selfless behavior is forbidden. Troops can die without any dustoff until a hot LZ is secured. In Vietnam, you went in regardless of what ordnance was flying through the air. The order was simple. Shut up and fly the mission. Now. That others may live.



About asknod

VA claims blogger
This entry was posted in Agent Orange, Aid and Attendance, Milestones, PTSD, SC For Cause of Death, Vietnam War history and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Bruce A. Terry says:

    to Auenone: in 67-68, we (Dustoff in the Delta) officially were forbidden to effect a hot mission without gunship escort. In 12 months I did perhaps one per month, including Tet, with gun escort. There were just not enough guns to comply with that order so we ignored it rather than let somebody die because of it. We got ships and people hurt sometimes, but we had to try it and nobody in my outfit ever refused a mission assignment because of that standing order or any other reason. We always went out and sadly a couple did not come back.

    • asknod says:

      I, of course, cannot comment on what transpired in-country and rely extensively on the stories told me by Dustoffs. I’ve read Steve Vermillions’s book on the subject and constantly amazed at the parallels I saw up country in Laos. SAR wouldn’t come in for a rescue of a downed pilot unless they had a minimum of two Sandys or some fast movers with effective ordnance from Udorn.
      Far more frequently, An Air America chopper pilot driving an old H-34 would swoop in and grab them with no air support whatsoever. Old wive’s tales say AirAm got bonuses for doing it and that was the motivation. That’s untrue and was never the case. The fact is some folks are fearless and the altruism was purely the horror of losing a fellow American to the Pathet Lao. We had no Geneva Conventions Agreement and we were summarily executed when we surrendered. AirAm pilots knew that window of opportunity was brief and exploited it whereas the 37th ARRS did it by the book and wasn’t nearly as successful.
      Bravery is a commodity in short supply when the shit hits the fan. Dustoff crews and AirAm PICs embodied the word like no other outfit in that war.
      I’m sure someone can recite instances of wave offs but most crews ignored it and flew the mission anyway.

  2. In 1964 and 1969 as a DUSTOFF pilot in Vietnam, our combat arms headquarters to whom we were attached, understood our unique connection with the Surgeon’s Office in dealing with medical evacuation missions and allowed evacuation mission approval and response down to the DUSTOFF Medical Detachment level.

    RE: “Sadly, in this day and age, such selfless behavior is forbidden. Troops can die without any dustoff until a hot LZ is secured. In Vietnam, you went in regardless of what ordnance was flying through the air. The order was simple. Shut up and fly the mission. Now. That others may live.”

    I’m not sure of the timeframe that your above comment relates.
    I do remember when the first major combat arms division arrived, there was a problem with medical evacuation in that MEDEVAC requests were routed through 2 or 3 levels of approval that cost lives. Thankfully, the early DUSTOFFers’ complaints to the SGO solved the problem — hopefully FOR GOOD !!

  3. Bob Lockett says:

    I have no idea of the name of the Dust off pilot or his crew that flew into a hot LZ and choppered my ass to the 312th Evac in Chu Lai in 1969 but I salute John, him, and all the other Dust off crews the bravest and most insane dudes I have ever met.

  4. Auenone says:

    While they were the bravest of all the troops in the “hole”, it didn’t always work out the way it was described here. While staying in a “friendly” village and going to look for an ambush site for that night, we were hit by a squad and ourselves ambushed. Squad leader ate a claymore and myself a grenade, supposedly from a navy barge left unguarded and swept clean by the VC. The gunships came in from LZ English and wouldn’t fire because we were within a quarter mile of that “friendly” village. Medivac came and wouldn’t land because we were still under fire. That was the beginning of Tricky Dick’s pacification program.
    DB 173rd Airborne Brigade 1969

    • asknod says:

      You entered the Twilight Zone of situations. Most Dustoffs would have said screw it-fly the mission. Tricky Dicky changed all that. It got to the point where we couldn’t drop Nape without a personal release from the US Ambassador down in Vientiane. Politics don’t work in wars. Collateral damage is inevitable.

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