Vietnam: Helicopter Evacuation

PrintPrintEmailEmailA MARINE GUIDES a medevac helicopter to a landing to a near Du Co, South Vietnam, where it will pick up the victims of an ambush and fly them to a nearby hospital. Helicopter evacuation began in Korea, but in that war, land-based ambulances still carried 80 percent of the wounded. In Vietnam, “dust-off” helicopters touched down on the battlefield itself and removed the wounded to air-conditioned fixed-facility hospitals as sophisticated as those in the United States. Because of the speed of evacuation and the quality and proximity of these hospitals, the died-of-wounds rate in Vietnam sank to 2.5 percent, the lowest of any war.

Medical evacuation by air was so successful in Vietnam that, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, helicopters began to transform civilian emergency care. The Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Health, Education and Welfare joined in a project called MAST—Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic. In one of the programs’s early successes, Army helicopters piloted by Vietnam veterans flew more than four hundred missions after Hurricane Agnes in June 1972, evacuating families from flooded areas. Today MAST helicopters are used across the nation to transport victims of heart attacks or traffic accidents, saving lives that might have been lost in the wait for an ambulance.

Heartening as this advance has been, the medical statistics on Vietnam are not yet complete. Unexpected illnesses that may have been caused by the defoliant Agent Orange are just now being diagnosed. Older veterans are being treated for problems that some attribute to doses of atomic radiation received at the close of World War II. The died-of-wounds rates of both these wars may, tragically, need to be revised.