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EDP: When Discretion Is The Better Part Of Valor

By Rex Orgill, NEMSPA Member #22096

The date is November 14, 1965. The location, the Ia Drang Valley, South Viet Nam. Your Infantry Battalion is pinned down at LZ Xray by relentless enemy fire from a heavily armed force that outnum- bers yours eight to one. Casualties are mounting rapidly, but due to the intensity of the enemy machine gun fire the LZ commander has canceled all requests for helicopter support. Your ammunition is being rapidly depleted, and your thoughts begin to drift uncontrollably toward your loved ones 12,000 miles away. You sud- denly know in your gut that you will never see them again. Then above the chaos of battle you hear the faint but fa- miliar sound of a lone helicopter and you are immediately gripped by both hope and fear. Hope that help is really coming, and fear for the safety of the helicopter crew who have nothing to protect them from this raging battle but the thin metal skin of the olive drab “Huey”.

Captain Ed Freeman’s Congressional Medal of Honor citation states that he flew “his unarmed helicopter through the gauntlet of enemy fire time after time, de- livering critically needed ammunition, wa- ter and medical supplies to the besieged battalion. …Captain Freeman flew 14 separate rescue missions providing the life-saving evacuation of an estimated 30 seriously wounded soldiers, some of whom would not have survived had he not acted. All flights were made into a small emergency landing zone within 100 to 200 meters of the defensive perimeter… (His) selfless acts of great valor, extraor- dinary perseverance and intrepidity were far above and beyond the call of duty or mission and set a superb example of lead- ership and courage.”

The spirit and heritage of the air med- ical transport industry has its proud roots in hundreds of stories and experiences

Pilot Rex Orgill

One good rule that was introduced into my career a few years ago was the idea of an enroute decision criteria based on pre-determined limits rather than some gut feeling that things

weren’t going too well, or a realization that I was already in trouble.

similar to Ed Freeman’s. Their stories were regularly publicized by the war cor- respondents covering the Viet Nam con- flict of the 60’s and early 70’s. More than a decade earlier, the Korean War laid the foundation for the use of he- licopters to conduct life-saving, rapid ca- sualty transport as seen on almost every episode of the TV series MASH. The emotional surge of Radar’s “Chopper in- bound!” is renewed today by the news media’s readiness to sensationalize what medical flight crews would consider a rel- atively routine activity. Consequently, some idealize helicopter flight crews with near angelic regard. Yet, others have the erroneous belief that they can, and possi- bly should as a matter of course, hero- ically defy overwhelming environmental odds to reach and transport critically sick or injured patients.

It is difficult to not be, at least occa- sionally, influenced and pressured by this kind of stereotype. We as humans thrive on meeting the high and noble expecta- tions of others. It seems almost normal, or even obligatory, to comply with such ideals. When these perceived expecta- tions are combined with other common in- ternal pressures such as fear of failure, the personal need to prevail, the need to main- tain stature in the eyes of our peers and managers, and the critical needs of the pa- tient, then mission completion can be- come the overriding priority in the minds of both pilot and crew. And of course if you factor in the financial consequences of failure, then a “can-do” culture can quickly morph into a “must-do” herd. I was assigned to Ed Freeman’s Com- pany, A of the 229th Aviation Battalion, many months after he left for home, and I think I have in my 40 plus year aviation career experienced almost every emotional

Continued on page 10 • March 2010

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