The DUSTOFF "legend"
Remarks by Retired Colonel Ben Knisely at the 19th Annual DUSTOFF reunion 21 February 1998

How do you thank someone for saving your life? Such a statement has real meaning in this room - because that's what many of you folks do as your day to day job. I have, had the privilege, on a couple occasions, in the performance of doing that job, perhaps contributed to saving a life or two -- on the "giving end" you might say. As so many of you in this room have experienced -- that is a wonderful feeling of satisfaction that no one can ever take away from you.

I stand before you tonight as one of the fortunate few who have been on both sides of the lifesaving equation. It is my privilege tonight, to publicly thank someone for saving my life 30 years ago (almost to the day) -- the "receiving end' you might say.

I can tell you that there is an interesting relationship between the two ends of that survival equation. The most profound end, of course, is realizing that you would not be alive today - were it not for the efforts and actions of another individual or individuals. When one thinks of how you might express your gratitude for such an incredible display of selflessness, even in the face of danger, -- trust me -- the magnitude of what you want to convey is simply beyond the spoken word.

But having had the privilege to have returned the same favor (to another human being) and knowing the personal and silent feeling of satisfaction and reward that you will forever cherish as a result of that event -- it allows me to utter three words and know that there is feeling and understanding between me and the individuals who were responsible for getting me out of that God forsaken jungle so many years ago.

I thank you, for my life, Tim Lickness, (Mike Myer, wherever you are), Byron Howlett, and Joe Brown -- from the bottom of my heart.

One evening several years ago, at the Dustoff gathering, we had an intriguing guest speaker named Carter Harmon. Some of you will recall, he is credited with performing the first documented rescue mission with a YR-4 helicopter in Burma. I remember his story well, because it was much like what had happened to me - he flew into some God-forsaken place to rescue an L-1 crew who had been shot down by enemy fire. You might say this was DUSTOFF mission #1, and it occurred long before many of you in this room were even born.

At the time he was a new flight lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, the year was 1944. John Sheonlein helped me locate Carter a few weeks ago. He lives alone in an apartment in New York City now. I talked to him briefly last week, he is now 80 years old - he ask me to say hello to you all. I reminded him that many of us still refer to him as "Dustoff one". When I was the Aviation Consultant, I exchanged several letters with Carter, and we became friends. For the past 30 years he has been a musical reporter for the NY Times, and has even written a book that includes some excerpts from his old Army Aviation days.

On the evening that he was our guest at this very function, he confessed to us that he was somewhat nervous -- but his recollection and presentation about his personal experience in that historic aviation event -- was as sharp as any military briefing any of us had ever received. The story of his actions is truly an inspiration to all of us.

As he concluded his remarks that evening -- I shall never forget a very moving moment that he created in a very innocent way.

He said, "Ladies and Gentleman, I am very honored to have been invited to speak with your organization tonight - I don't think that in my entire life, I have ever been in a room with so many heroes gathered at one time -- I want to tell you how overwhelmed I am at the thought of that -- and with my presence here with you tonight." At that moment he "choked up" and visibly became emotional and had to wait a few moments before he could finish his last few sentences and walk off the podium.

The entire audience was overcome by a similar emotional reaction to his statement -- suddenly there wasn't a dry eye in the room and even our M/C (then President Joe Madrono) could hardly speak for a moment to thank him for coming to talk to us.

Each time this group has gathered since then, I find myself pausing sometime during the Saturday evening program, and quietly scanning the faces in the room, and remembering his extraordinary statement about a room full of heroes.

And now, as I scan the room again tonight, I see that same audience -- and I feel that same admiration and awe that Carter Harmon did. I have many times thought about Carter's statement and his unsolicited tribute to us over the years since then, and I would like to offer to you (and to him) a plausible reply. What struck Lt. Carter Harmon that night is something all of us know and feel as simply "the legend" of DUSTOFF.

All of you in this room tonight are in some way -- a part of that legend -- The aura of humanitarian good will -- that permeates this room tonight (and was present the night Carter was here) is something we all sense -- but have difficulty explaining or articulating at times.

Charlie Webb described it well last year when he took over the gavel as your President - about how DUSTOFF is not about helicopters or wars - but about a special group of people. It's like the old adage that the "whole '" is greater than the sum of it's parts.

If you were to ask anyone in this room this evening, if he or she was a hero -- to a man, the reply would be "not at all -- but I am proud of any contribution I may have made to the story of "Dustoff". Many of you, present here tonight, have perhaps saved one or more lives, or have certainly been the instrument to ameliorate uncountless amounts of human suffering. No one will ever take that incredible rewarding feeling away from you -- for knowing that you made a difference in someone's life -- on some IFR night in Texas or Germany, or halfway around the world in a fogy jungle or a desert sandstorm. You will always feel it and know it----Right here in your heart!

Heroic fetes? In some cases, absolutely, but in general, what we are talking about is the summation of all those thousands of humanitarian efforts -- that are…. in themselves --grater as a "whole" than the sum of all those individual performances. That…. my friends is truly the core of the "legend" of DUSTOFF.

It is the "Legend" that brings you here tonight, it is who you are, and from where you have come. You are a part of a great fraternity that is admired and respected around the world by your fellow servicemen. No other Armed Force in the world has anything like Dustoff. We have now, by some accounts, evacuated or rescued over one million military patients.

There are several of you in this room tonight who have written some great chapters in our "legend." Just to be here with you and to shake your hand again - is something many of us look forward to each year. Your story -- is now ours, it belongs forever -- to all of us.

But perhaps the most intriguing thought I wish to leave with you tonight -- is that there may be some of you present this evening -- who have yet to write some future chapters in this great "legend". That will happen -- you can surely bet on it. Remember, our legend is not very old, it only spans less than a half a century in years - this organization has only met 19 times.

Of all my lifelong deeds and accomplishments, as humble as they may be -- the one thing that I am proudest of -- and receive my greatest personal satisfaction from -- is that I have had the privilege and the honor to be a part of the great DUSTOFF team and it's renowned legend.

The large wooden plaque that stands at the other end of this room represents "hallowed ground" for all of us. We all know someone whose name is inscribed thereon. Each time I return to San Antonio and take a moment to stare at it - it is first a stunning reminder to me about all the incredible things that we do - but then, before I turn away -- I am also reminded that - sometimes - there are some things that we simply cannot do - try as hard as we may. That board containing 241 names is our legacy and perhaps the most visible symbol of our legend - we must preserve it forever.

Thank you Charlie Webb, for orchestrating this remarkable reunion for Tim Lickness and I - and thank you fellow DUSTOFFERS for allowing this somewhat personal story to be a part of your program tonight. It is of course, just another story in the legend of Dustoff.

I salute you all and may God be with those of you who are -- still today -- performing and perpetuating the great Dustoff Legend.

[Reunion] [Charlie's Comments]