Soldiers of the 159th maintain the DUSTOFF legacy.
Authors: Howe, Robert F.
Campbell, Kyle D.
Pub Date: 10/01/2005
Publication: Name: U.S. Army Medical Department Journal Publisher: U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2005 U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School ISSN: 1524-0436
Issue: Date: Oct-Dec, 2005
Accession Number: 147669356
Full Text: "That pilot knew what he had to do--he put that bird down in an area that allowed for no error on his part. If you walk the area, you would know what I mean ... and this was the same feeling our Soldiers had which built their confidence that if they required MEDEVAC, these pilots would risk their own lives to save theirs." (1)


The 159th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) continues to maintain the proud legacy of DUSTOFF in both peacetime and war. The Soldiers that make up this outstanding organization embody the finest qualities of professional military service and are truly dedicated to "Never leaving a fallen comrade." This mission focus not only serves as a critical part of our Army's Warrior Ethos, but truly defines the DUSTOFF heritage forged by those who came before us, like Randy Millican (Medic, Vietnam 69-70), Douglas Moore (Commander, Vietnam 68-69), Bruce Nelson (Flt Opns Off, Vietnam 70-71) and Bruce Zenk (Pilot, Ft. Riley 65-67). The purpose of this article is to highlight the proud history of the 159th Medical Company (AA) and to put a face on the Soldiers of today who continue the noble mission of evacuating the sick and injured from the modern-day battlefield.

Proud Lineage

Like many Army Medical Department units, the 159th Medical Company has a proud history dating back to the Second World War. The unit was originally constituted on 7 October 1944 as the 159th Medical Service Detachment. The unit began service on 22 November 1944 in France only to be deactivated less then a year later on 12 November 1945. The unit did not serve in any named World War II campaigns, but later distinguished itself in four Korean War campaigns as the 159th Maxillo-Facial Detachment. Following the Korean War, the unit was once again deactivated on 24 January 1953, but would not lie dormant for long. With the dawn of the age of the air ambulance came exciting changes for those charged with the evacuation of patients, laying the foundation for the unit of today. (2)

The 159th Medical Detachment (RA) was activated on 24 December 1963 at Fort Riley, Kansas, beginning dedicated service as an air ambulance unit. Initially, the unit was not allocated helicopters, but in early 1964, five H-21s were assigned. Unfortunately, over the next two years, all five aircraft sustained crash damage during blood transport and training missions. The worst accident resulted from a fatal mid-air collision involving an F-105 trainer (2). The unit would require almost complete reconstitution in order to become combat effective. This became even more critical as the unit would soon be called to support operations in Vietnam.


Evacuation missions during combat operations in Vietnam forever changed the emotions associated with the term "DUSTOFF". In August 1967, the 159th was alerted for movement to Vietnam. Six new UH-IH helicopters were flown from the Bell Helicopter plant in Fort Worth, Texas, to meet up with the unit and prepare for overseas processing. The main body sailed for Vietnam 3 October 1967 and arrived in Cam Ranh Bay on 25 October 1967. The helicopters were assembled and flown to Cu Chi. The 159th was assigned to the 67th Medical Brigade and was directed to be combat ready within 30 days. By the end of the 30 days, all six aircraft had sustained combat damage. (2)

The principal mission of the 159th was to support the 25th Infantry Division and its counterpart, the 25th ARVN Division. In addition, the unit also supported the 1st Infantry Division, Special Forces camps along the Cambodian border, and later, elements of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). On 16 February 1968, the 159th was reassigned to the 68th Medical Group and placed under the operational control of the 45th Medical Company (AA) located in Long Binh. During 1968, the 159th evacuated 20,511 patients. (2)

On New Year's Day, 1969, a 159th aircraft commanded by MAJ Douglas E. Moore flew to a confrontation site on the Cambodian border where three American Prisoner's of War were released by the National Libertarian Front. The three were safely evacuated to the hospital complex at Long Binh. The 159th evacuated approximately 12,000 patients during 1969. (2)

In the first 3 months of 1970, the 159th evacuated another 4,272 patients. After control of the Cu Chi and Tay Ninh base camps was turned over the South Vietnamese, the 159th joined the 45th at Long Binh on 7 November 1970. Together they were known as 'Long Binh DUSTOFF'. In early March 1971, the 45th Medical Company stood down and the 283rd Medical Detachment moved to Long Binh from Tuy Hoa. They continued to be known as "Long Binh DUSTOFF" until the 283rd stood down in November 1972. (2)

In spring, 1971, the 159th began training the South Vietnamese Air Force to take over medical evacuation responsibilities. Combined crews comprised of an American Aircraft Commander and Crewchief, and a South Vietnamese Pilot and Medic began performing DUSTOFF missions. Gradually, the South Vietnamese Air Force took over complete operation of Long Binh DUSTOFF, allowing the 159th to depart Vietnam for Fort Benning, Georgia, on 30 November 1972. (2) Unfortunately, the 159th redeployment did not occur prior to the loss of CW2 Robert Horst on 7 April 1972. He has the unfortunate distinction of being the last DUSTOFF pilot killed in Vietnam. This served as a grim reminder of the countless DUSTOFF Soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice defending the cause of freedom while saving fallen comrades. (2) During the 159th's service in Vietnam, the unit earned thirteen campaign streamers and three Meritorious Unit Commendations, in addition to several Republic of Vietnam decorations. (3)


The 159th's stay at Fort Benning was short-lived and the unit packed up again for another overseas move. The unit departed Fort Benning on 25 June 1973 enroute to West Germany. It arrived at its new station at Fuerth, West Germany, on 25 June 1973, where it remained until 1977. The unit then moved to Garlstedt until 1986 when it relocated to the Army Airfield at Gresham outside Darmstadt, Germany. It remained there through its reorganization as a full-up Medical Company (Air Ambulance) on 16 October 1986. In October 1987, the 159th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) became an official member of the "DUSTOFF Europe" team as a separate company under the 421st Medical Evacuation Battalion. With the closure of the Gresham Army Airfield in June 1992, the unit was relocated to Wiesbaden Army Airfield, where it remains today. (4)

As proud members of the DUSTOFF Europe team, all of the air ambulance companies remained decisively engaged in both training and deployments. During the Gulf War, the 159th provided evacuation support at the communications zone level, while continuing European mission support. On 22 April 1991, the unit self-deployed fifteen aircraft to Turkey in support of Operation Provide Comfort where a portion of the unit remained on station until 22 October 1991. The rest of the company was split to augment operations in Saudi Arabia until December 1991, when the unit returned to Wiesbaden.

In December 1992, the 159th was called upon to deploy fifteen aircraft to the civil war-torn region of Somalia in support of Operation Restore Hope. Commanded by MAJ Pauline Knapp, the unit operated out of the airfield at Bali Doggle. Aircraft requirements were reduced from 15 down to six and the unit was replaced by its sister-company, the 45th Medical Company (AA) on 31 May 1993. The 159th was awarded the Meritorious Unit Citation for its participation in support of deployed forces.

In May 1998, the 159th was assigned to support United States and United Nations peacekeepingforces in Bosnia as part of the Stabilization Force (SFOR) near Tuzla, Bosnia. Commanded by MAJ Bill Layden, the unit expertly supported joint and coalition forces operating throughout the dangerous and unpredictable Balkan region.

Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom

The operational tempo of all DUSTOFF units remains relatively unchanged. When units are not deployed, they are either providing real world medical evacuation support in garrison or they are training for deployment. From 1999 to 2002, the 159th had the opportunity to deploy multiple times throughout the EUCOM area of responsibility, conducting operations in Nigeria, Tunisia, England, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Bosnia, Czech Republic and even some short stints in Germany.

Things would not slow down for the unit, and the year 2002 would bring the 159th to the front lines of the Global War on Terror. As the unit

was participating in a major V Corps exercise in Poland, they were directed to deploy a Forward Support MEDEVAC Team in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Kuwait. Major Dustin Elder led the first 159th team out the door in October 2002. The team augmented 2-6 Cavalry and provided 24-Hour MEDEVAC support to all deploying forces as they conducted reception, staging, onward movement, integration, and training in Kuwait. Little did anyone know that this team would serve as an Advanced Party for the company main effort.

In February 2003, the commander of the 159th, MAJ Arthur Jackson, was initially handed the important mission of facilitating the deployment preparation and execution for the 45th Medical Company (AA). The 421st Medical Evacuation Battalion selected the 45th to serve as the lead company deploying first to Turkey with the anticipated follow-on mission into the heart of Iraq. In a dramatic turn of events in late February, the 159th was called upon to deploy to Iraq. Within 2 weeks of initial notification, the unit deployed 12 aircraft, ground support equipment, and 102 personnel to Camp Doha, Kuwait, and began preparation for combat operations. During combat operations, the unit provided medical evacuation support to virtually every major combat unit operating in the Central Command area of responsibility. Unit aircrews covered the entire airspace of Iraq, reaching all of its borders during their yearlong deployment. Ground crews operated over unsecured routes, traveling the expanses of the hostile desert, typically without escort or air coverage. The mission statistics of the 159th are legendary. The unit operated in the most dangerous and unpredictable areas of Iraq, flying single-ship without escort. They averaged an astounding 13 missions per day for the duration of the deployment, evacuation numbers not seen since Vietnam. All told, the unit flew over 5,000 combat hours, conducted over 2,300 lifesaving missions and evacuated over 5,200 patients. For their efforts, unit Soldiers were awarded four Soldier's Medals, seven Bronze Star Medals, more then 70 Air Medals, 40 Army Commendation Medals, and 75 Sikorsky Rescue Awards. (5)

Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment or unit accolade of all is that the 159th did not lose a single Soldier in nearly 16 months of continuous combat operations. The battle-proven unit redeployed to Wiesbaden, Germany, in February 2004, further enhancing their mark on the DUSTOFF legacy. Unfortunately, the unit would not have much time to recover.

Within 100 days of redeploying from OIF, the 159th would be called again to support ongoing combat operations in Afghanistan. The unit deployed a Forward Support MEDEVAC Team consisting of three aircraft and 18 personnel in support of the NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), conducting a relief in place with the 45th Medical Company (AA). Several of the deploying crewmembers consisted of volunteers that had only recently returned from combat operations in Iraq, demonstrating the incredible nature of selfless service and dedication to duty witnessed daily in DUSTOFF. CPT John Hoffman's team augmented 'Afghan DUSTOFF' a team from the 68th Medical Company (AA) serving in support of OEF and commanded by MAJ David Spero. The deployed crews were awarded two Bronze Star Medals, 19 Air Medals (including one for Valor), and eight Army Commendation Medals. Additionally, one of the 159th flight medics, SSG(P) Makonen Campbell, was submitted for the Distinguished Flying Cross for a heroic lifesaving hoist mission conducted under hostile fire. (6)

The mission is not over in Afghanistan, with DUSTOFF crews flying an average of 100 missions or more a month. (7) A team from the 421st Medical Evacuation Battalion currently supports Operation Enduring Freedom and the International Security Assistance Force. The team of 18 Soldiers is currently led by CPT John McGuire from the 45th Medical Company (AA).

The Face of DUSTOFF

Talk with any DUSTOFF Soldier, past or present, and most will tell you that serving in DUSTOFF fills them with a sense of pride. This pride is warranted when you truly consider the number of lives that are positively affected by their actions. The Soldiers of the 159th Medical Company (AA) are not unlike others serving in DUSTOFF units throughout the Army, but their accomplishments are incredibly significant. Quite simply, theirs is a story that needs to be told. It would be impossible to capture all the amazing stories of the 159th in one brief article, but the following vignettes are offered to show the face of today's DUSTOFF Soldier.


Late in the evening on 1 October 2003, DUSTOFF 552 responded to an Urgent-Surgical MEDEVAC request in central Baghdad. The crew, consisting of CW3 Clint Miller (Pilot-in-Command), 1LT Thomas K. Powell (Co-Pilot), SSG Eric Hartman (Medic) and SPC Doug Holm (Crewchief) lifted off within 5 minutes of notification and headed into the heart of the city. A U.S. Soldier was shot in the face by an Iraqi. The crew arrived at the pick-up site and searched for a more suitable landing zone because the area selected by the maneuver force was a narrow street surrounded by power lines, poles, and buildings. As the crew was searching, a call came over the radio crying, 'DUSTOFF, we need you down here now, my buddy is dying.' The crew made their final approach to the landing zone and touched down just before 'browning out' from the dust. The crew quickly loaded the patient on board and departed the site, enroute to the hospital.

Unfortunately, this would not be their last mission that night. Just after midnight, the crew received another MEDEVAC call from a familiar location. The request to evacuate an Iraqi insurgent who was shot in the chest came from the same unit. The evacuee was the man who had shot the Soldier evacuated earlier. 1LT Powell related that "We put him on the same litter as our Soldier a few hours earlier, and the medic performed CPR on him with the same intensity as he did for ours. And we saved his life." (8)

This was not the only occasion where the 159th would evacuate both the wounded U.S. Soldier and the enemy that caused the wound. Powell went on to describe the feelings of some of the crewmembers, when he said "Some days the medics come back saying they hate their job, but then they're back at work the next day with the same intensity." He went on to say that "I've looked back there sometimes and I don't know how they do it. Now I just keep my eyes forward and fly." (8) As mentioned in the opening of this article, the Brigade Commander on the scene of this incident later recognized the crew for their actions, saying that his Soldiers knew that "... if they required MEDEVAC, these pilots would risk their own lives to save theirs." (1) Soldiers know that if they are wounded, their fellow Soldiers and specifically DUSTOFF Soldiers will do everything in their power to evacuate them. This understanding allows Soldiers to mentally prepare for the challenges of war. Additionally, it allows large numbers of our fallen to fight another day, by rapidly evacuating them to an appropriate level of medical care allowing many to return to duty. (9)

Baghdad Prison Mass Casualty

While supporting combat operations in Iraq, the 159th responded to multiple mass casualty (MASCAL) events. These missions placed significant stress on the hospitalization, evacuation, and patient regulation systems in theater. As always, the DUSTOFF crews showcased their ability to remain flexible and adaptive in the conduct of their mission. Air and ground crews were often charged with providing command and control of air evacuation assets on the scene, as well as critical patient regulating services to ensure that patients were transported to "open beds" in the various treatment facilities. The Baghdad Prison MASCAL was an example of this adaptive coordination in clearing the battlefield.

On the night of 16 August 2003, the Baghdad Prison, located approximately 12 miles west of the city, came under heavy mortar fire. Over 50 Iraqi Enemy Prisoners of War were injured in the attack. The 159th responded with three aircraft, the first arrived within 6 minutes of the initial call for help. The 54th Medical Company (AA) also answered the call by deploying aircraft. SFC Robert Hanna, a 159th Aircraft Component Repair Supervisor by trade, was transported to the scene of the MASCAL in the back of an aircraft with a "man-pack" radio. Once on the ground, he assumed command and control of MEDEVAC assets, evacuating casualties to two Combat Support Hospitals (CSH), five Forward Surgical Teams (FST), and the Air Force Expeditionary Medical Support (EMED) surgical unit operating in the area. The first 12 casualties were evacuated to the 28th CSH, but this immediately filled the hospital to capacity and forced the remaining 30 casualties to be evacuated to the 21st CSH and the FSTs. In just 3 intense hours, the 159th aircrews evacuated 42 patients. The mission complexity and the actions that night by SFC Hanna and the aircrews were simply amazing. The tactics, techniques, and procedures executed during this mission would set the conditions for success for what would soon become, perhaps the most significant day of the war for the 159th. (10)

UN Bombing

For the 159th, 19 August 2003, appeared to be another typical day in Baghdad. The unit maintained three aircraft and crews on duty to provide continuous MEDEVAC coverage for the area. A call came in to DUSTOFF Operations relaying that there was a 'possible mission' in the vicinity of the UN and to ready the crews. The aircraft performing 'Third Up' commanded by CW3 Clint Miller, overheard the radio transmission and diverted to what was considered 'ground zero' arriving within 8 minutes of the call. DUSTOFF Operations learned that the United Nations headquarters in downtown Baghdad had just been bombed and they took immediate action to launch additional crews. The second aircraft arrived only minutes after Miller's crew. Within 30 minutes, the rest of the 159th evacuation team, consisting of four additional aircraft, arrived on the scene to provide medical evacuation support to the tragedy. Within 90 minutes, two additional aircraft from the 54th Medical Company (AA) and three aircraft from the Air Force Combat Search and Rescue team arrived on the scene as well to augment the ongoing rescue and recovery operation.

As Miller's aircraft touched down in the designated landing zone, SSG Eric Hartman (Medic) and SPC Douglas Holm (Crewchief) immediately exited the aircraft to survey the disaster area. Their aircraft then departed allowing additional crewmembers to be dropped off at the site to assist in the ground rescue efforts as needed. As the aircraft began stacking up over downtown Baghdad, it became apparent that airspace command and control needed to be rapidly established to maintain aircraft separation, especially with the high volume of traffic. At one point during the mission, there were 11 aircraft in the 'pattern' over the rescue site. This daunting task fell squarely on shoulders of the 159th Operations Officer, CPT James Hannam, who was picked up by CW3 Roger Hopkins and flown to the site. Upon his arrival, he immediately gained control of the airspace and directed the patient flow. As the city-wide patient regulator, he coordinated with the 11 medical treatment facilities in the area to receive and sort the mounting casualties. As the aeromedical evacuation operations were underway, a desperate ground rescue operation was initiated by military and civilian authorities.

Without regard for their personal safety, 159th Soldiers helped spearhead the rescue efforts on the ground, providing triage for the numerous patients and assisting in the recovery of the survivors buried underneath the rubble. SSG Hartman, SPC Holm, CPL Jason Bierman, SPC Levi Vasquez, and several other 159th crewmembers managed the recovery operation, entering the dangerously unstable building to aid in the search efforts. They provided much needed support to the seemingly endless flow of casualties. After 12 hours of effort, the site was finally cleared and the crews returned to base. The 159th commander, MAJ Jackson, anxiously received each of his crews at the end of the day and with the help of the fire department, personally led the efforts to scrub the blood and debris from the six aircraft so that his crews could rest and prepare for the next urgent call. At the end of the day, the 159th treated and evacuated 38 patients directly from "ground zero" and over 80 patients related to the bombing, flying over 45 combat hours. (10)

The entire unit either directly or indirectly supported the overwhelming chaos of that day. SSG Eric Hartman and SPC Doug Holm however, were singled out for their heroic actions that went far above and beyond the call of duty. They were both awarded the Soldier's Medal for their efforts. When asked about their bravery, SGT Holm said "We would have done the same for anybody" and SSG Hartman humbly remarked "I didn't do anything another crew member wouldn't have done." (11) These two Soldiers and all the others that participated that day, embody the 'so that others might live' call to selfless service witnessed in their outstanding outfit. The 159th was also awarded the DUSTOFF Association Rescue of the Year Award for the unit's heroic actions in response to the tragic bombing. (12)

The Future of the 159th

The 159th recently underwent a major transition when it was reassigned from the storied 421st Medical Evacuation Battalion, eight time winner of the prestigious Ellis D. Parker Award, to the 1st Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment. The command re-alignment was executed as part of the Aviation Transformation Initiative (ATI). The ATI includes reorganizing and restructuring Air Ambulance companies from 15 aircraft, 150 Soldier organizations into 12 aircraft and 85 Soldier organizations under the command and control of General Support Aviation Battalions. As this article was written, the 159th prepares once again for operations at the 'tip of the spear' as the unit prepares for deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. At the end of their tour, the unit will transform into C Company, 3-10 General Support Aviation Battalion, stationed in Fort Drum. The unit name may change, but the storied history of the 159th will never fade.


This article represents a proud unit with dedicated and proven Soldiers, committed to excellence in both peacetime and war. Whether delivering a baby onboard a helicopter in the mountains of Afghanistan, responding to a gunshot wound on the Grafenwoehr Training Area, or conducting an urgent patient evacuation of a Soldier wounded in combat, no one does it better then the Soldiers of the 159th. Our proud legacy lies safely in the hands of today's DUSTOFF Soldier. The Miller's, Hartman's, Holm's, Powell's, Hanna's and every other Soldier serving in DUSTOFF across the globe gallantly represent the spirit and tradition forged by MAJ Charles Kelly and the others who came before us. The Soldiers of the 159th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) clearly 'have the controls' and stand vigil as the successful guarantors of our most noble profession.

"When I have your wounded."


(1.) Gold, Russel D., Commander, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Mission After Action, Operation Iraqi Freedom I, 159th DUSTOFF Association Rescue of the Year Award Recommendation 2004.

(2.) Hough, Mark et al., 159th DUSTOFF: History, Campaigns and Awards. 12 September 2005 .

(3.) 159th Lineage and Honors.

(4.) 159th Medical Company (AA) Unit Historical Records.

(5.) 12. 159th Medical Company (AA) After Action Review, MAR 2004.

(6.) 13. Horton, Jeffrey, CPT, personal communication, 4 August 2005.

(7.) 14. Mission Statistics, OEF 4/6, 20 August 2005.

(8.) 15. Johnson, Dennis, Air Ambulance Company from V Corps' 30th Medical Brigade Flying Busy 'DUSTOFF' Mission in Iraq, 414th Base Support Battalion Public Affairs Office, February 2004.

(9.) Hannam, James J., DUSTOFF Association Rescue of the Year Nomination 2004, 159th Medical Company (AA).

(10.) 159th Medical Company (AA) After Action Review, MAR 2004.

(11.) 22. Holm and Hartman, Comments at the Soldier's Medal Award Ceremony, Wiesbaden Germany, October 2004.

(12.) 159th Medical Company (AA) After Action Review, MAR 2004.

Major Howe is the Commander of the 159th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) headquartered in Wiesbaden, Germany.
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