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Oral History Interview with CW4 Michael J. Novosel

AMEDD Medal of Honor Awardees > Chief Warrant Officer Michael J. Novosel

AMEDD Medal of Honor Oral History Interviews

(3 SEPTEMBER 1922 - 2 APRIL 2006)

CW4 Novosel received the Medal Of Honor for actions performed 2 October 1969. Read his Medal of Honor citation for distinguished actions while serving as commander of a medical evacuation helicopter in Vietnam.

In this interview he talks about his beginnings as a bomber pilot in World War II including hurricane recon missions and the last official mission of the war. He describes his transition from bombers to helicopters and events leading to the award of his Medal of Honor.

This interview was conducted 24 March 1987.

Interviewer: How did you get in, I understand that you flew in the Second World War, prior to entering the Army and flying helicopters. Could you tell us a little about that?

Novosel: Yes. 

Interviewer: What kind of planes did you fly?

Novosel: Oh, for the most part I flew bombers, although I graduated from flight school in 1942.  Which is, as I said before, quite a interesting program, very difficult program.  And I graduated as a pursuit pilot.  In other words, what aces are made of, if you will. I was quite perturbed when I graduated, that I was informed my next duty station would be a training base. Or where I would be training pilots. In other words, I was made an instructor pilot. I was just barely 20 years old, and I envisioned myself as going to war, becoming an ace, if you will, winning the war by myself. You know, those types of visions. Which was common. We all had it. And without a doubt I raised a considerable fuss, because I was going to be made an instructor. And I would call the authority, some higher ranking officer would tell me, well, LT Novosel, I want you to know that only the best students are made instructors. And then I looked at my orders and I said well, isn't that a coincidence that all the best students have names that begin with N. They had chopped out a block.  The usual routing, if you know, for assignments. But I suppose that was the best thing that happened to me, because I gained a considerable amount of experience. The mission of the field that I was stationed at was changed from instructing of pilots to instruction of gunners. The equipment changed, and I was forced to go from a training plane into bombers, because that was what we were training. Gunners for the bomber program. And I ended up flying, oh, such aircraft as the B24, B25, the B26. And I did that work for over two years, well almost two years. And eventually we got a request for volunteers to go into the B29 program. At which point I volunteered. And the next thing I know I was flying B29's. And that's what I flew in combat. 

Interviewer:  How many missions did you have in combat?

Novosel:  Oh, not very many. I was up there for the last three months of the war. And the war was really winding down. My total combat missions was seven, if I recall correctly. But we had missions that were, that were related to combat that we got no credit for. Like I flew two hurricane recons.  Well, to me they were more dangerous than the combat. After all, the enemy was not very strong at this point. They were starving. If you can picture Japan in the last two or three months of the war. Their resources were shot. They were deprived of their oil, a basic resource that they needed. Food sources were depleted. So they weren't much of an enemy at this point. But, still and all, I was there for those missions. In addition, I dropped food to our prisoners, when we located them. This was a result of the preliminary talks before the surrender ceremonies. And we did that on two occasions.  And then I flew the last mission of the war, which was an official mission. And that was when there were 462 B29's covering General MacArthur on the battleship Missouri as he signed the surrender document.  And I was one of those 462. 

Interviewer: And then you got out after the war?

Novosel:  Shortly after that.  Actually, this happened in '45.  I was not able to get back home until late '47.  And then I got out in '49. 

Interviewer: When did you come back in the Army as a pilot?

Novosel: Well, actually I got recalled during the Korean war. By this time I was in the Air Force reserve, and as a result, I was recalled as a Major during the Korean war, but saw no combat. I got out again.  And I took employment as an airline pilot, in civilian life. Which I enjoyed very much. And it was shortly after that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. That I suppose, in one way of looking at it, I had my moment of irrationality and I took him up on his phrase, ask not what your country can do for you, and so on.  And I decided that I had to do my part in the Vietnam war.  And one of the motivating factors in that decision occurred one night when I had an overnight.  I believe it was in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was just watching TV and a special came on about the Vietnam war.  And it showed these helicopter gunships making passes at the enemy.  And I thought, my God, this is just like it was in World War II. And this was the part that I missed.  You see, I wanted to be one of those hot fighter pilots, that I could picture doing the same thing with a helicopter.  And I sort of kept it in the back of my mind. And I got up the nerve to tell the wife that I think I’m going to volunteer to go back in the service. My sense of importance, I think, was greater than the Air Force needs, cause the Air Force told me, well we really don't need anybody right now. And they added two more thoughts. They said, besides, you're a Lieutenant Colonel now, and we don't, we have an overage of senior officers. And they sort of hinted, they said, don't you think you're a little bit too old.  And I guess that made me a little bit angry. Cause I found out the Army was short of pilots.  And I looked into the program and volunteered. And, to indicate, or to prove how desperate the Army was for aviators, why they took me. And I reported for duty at Fort Bragg.  I think it was the 2nd of September, 1964. And the next day I was 42 years old. That, September 3rd is an interesting thing. It's an interesting date. That's my birthday. I remember that I flew the mission over (inaudible) surrender ceremonies. That was on September 2nd. And the next day again was my birthday. I was 23 at that point. About the time the war was over I was still 22 years old. And been in every bit of it, from the very beginning. 

Interviewer: When did you go to Vietnam?

Novosel:  Okay.  I was on duty in the Dominican Republic in late '64.  Excuse me in 1965, late '65.  And I received orders while I was still there, to go to Vietnam.  And I had to rush the trip home.  Because, ordinarily if you went, received orders for Vietnam, why you were given about 30 days preparation time.  But my orders almost had me in Vietnam by the time I received them.  So I got a, somewhat of an extension and was able to move my family into quarters, different quarters while I was gone.  And I arrived in Viet, I arrived in Vietnam in January of '66.  For a one, my first one year tour.  And that was with the 283rd Med Detachment, whose combat shirt I’m wearing today.  And this shirt, incidentally, is 21 years old.  So, that was to prove an interesting time.  That first year of DUSTOFF duty.  Interesting from the point of view, when I went to Vietnam I didn't even know that there was such an entity as DUSTOFF.  I guess if someone would have asked me, do they have medical evacuation, I would have said, well I’m sure they do.  But that was the extent of my knowledge.  The unit, what it stood for, and its accomplishments and so on.  Course, it wasn't long and I found out the real nitty gritty of what DUSTOFF is, and what it was designed for, and how it operated.  And I was one of them.  And I’ve got to admit there's this element of pride, as far as I’m concerned, that I could have been a DUSTOFF pilot.  It was...I sometimes steal a phrase from Winston Churchill, you know, when he mentioned that the, about the RAF that never were so many indebted to so few.  Paraphrasing him to some extent.  And I believe that it would be fair to say that never were so many infantrymen indebted to anyone more, than those few DUSTOFF pilots that were over there.  Cause we weren't, there weren't very many of us.  We were strapped for personnel.  We were strapped for equipment.  We were very short.  It was not uncommon, I think we talked about this earlier, for a division when it was going out against the enemy, when it asked for support of a DUSTOFF nature, medical evaluation nature, the whole division would be given one DUSTOFF aircraft.  And that is indication, in my estimation, how critical the resources were, how short they were.  And of course all this was to change as the war progressed.  As I said before, there is an element of pride that I retained in my association with DUSTOFF, with the, especially the 283rd Medical Detachment.  And I sort of paraphrased Winston Churchill when he made that statement about the RAF fighter pilots in World War II.  That never have so many owed so much to so few.  And I think that this is indicative of the work that was done by the DUSTOFF pilots in Vietnam.  Again, that never were there so many ground troops, infantrymen, wounded that were indebted to the actions of so few a number.  Because DUSTOFF was so few in numbers in those days, in 1965-66, that it was not uncommon for a division, when requesting medical evacuation assistance, for an operation that was about to transpire, they would get one helicopter.  Our situation was quite critical. 

Interviewer:  You went back to Vietnam in '69 and '70. 

Novosel: Yes I did. 

Interviewer:  Could you explain to us the events that took place on the 2nd of October 1969?

Novosel:  Well, the 2nd of October 69, I guess that's the day that I’m not going to forget for a long time.  It started out I guess as any other day.  A lot of flying.  A lot of pickups, all over the delta.  By the time...well, I started the day at 5:00 in the morning, which is normal.  I was actually airborne at 6:00 in the morning.  I was first up that day.  First up situation came up about every third day for every aircraft commander there.  And, it was a normal day.  We had been fired at, we had been shot at.  And I’m sure the aircraft had been hit a few times.  And I thought as the afternoon passed 3:00 o'clock, well, that it was going to be a relatively easy day.  And as it turned out it wasn't.  Because at, around 4:00 o'clock or so I received an urgent mission, over the air.  Course it was all in code, and I didn't take very long to decode it, and I knew just where I had to go, and headed for the Parrot's Beak area of South Vietnam.  And on the way I made contact with the unit that requested me.  And I was talking with the C&C aircraft.  C&C is the command and control.  Who was circling over a battle area.  And he gave me an assessment of the tactical situation.  I learned that some troops had been cut off from their main forces, since 6, 8:00 o'clock that morning.  They had been in action against the enemy since 6:00 o'clock that morning.  The number that was, that were cut off, we didn't know.  But we knew they were, it was a sizable group.  They had completely run out of ammo.  Their ammunition was expended.  As a result they had abandoned their weapons, they were useless.  For the most part they were wounded.  They may have had radios, but they had no, they couldn't talk to me and I couldn't talk to them because these were Vietnamese troops.  And I certainly couldn't speak Vietnamese and they didn't have any linguist down there with them.  They were trying to evade enemy fire.  They had been, if you can imagine, they had been under fire, enemy fire since 8:00 o'clock that morning.  I arrived upon station at 4:30 in the afternoon.  This group was completely demoralized.  All they were trying to do was stay alive.  They were trying to push themselves into any kind of a depression in the earth.  Trying to find an embankment here or an embankment there, where they would be relatively safe from enemy fire.  Now the enemy had them completely surrounded.  They were entrenched in an area that they controlled, that they had used as a training base.  And they had actually constructed simulated forts, to enable them to develop doctrine tactics and so on for the attacks on these forts.  And the forts were in the shape of a triangle, which simulated the triangular fortifications that were down in the delta.  And then there was others that were in the form of squares, that was in the form square, which simulated those forts which were of a square, or was a rectangular nature.  So the enemy used these to teach their people the proper method of assaulting such fortifications.  The purpose of our troops being there was to sweep the area and push the enemy out.  They didn't, however, know the real strength of the enemy, which was significantly greater than what they had ever dreamed of.  The enemy was armed with RPGs, rocket propelled grenades.  They were armed with mortars of various dimensions and sizes.  They were armed with 50 calibers.  They were armed with 30 calibers, and hand held automatic weapons.  I wasn't informed by the C&C at that time that in the sweep through the area that we were conducting, they were given air support by F100's from the Air Force, and by Cobra gunships from the Army.  I was not informed that two of the F100's had been hit by anti-aircraft fire.  I was not informed two of the Cobras had already been shot down, and had been extracted by our own C46's.  So when I came up to the area, and I could see it, why there was relative quiet.  Except you could hear the enemy gunfire down below.  Even though I was 2000 feet.  The noise would come up.  I couldn't see anybody on the ground.  Course I relied completely on the C&C ship, and an aircraft that was circling above him.  Both of which had observers with binoculars.  And they were the ones who could spot our troops, the so called friendlies, who were, as I said, crouched, hidden as best they could to try to evade enemy fire.  And I was told to attempt the pickup in one of the apexes or angles of the triangular fort.  So I immediately went down.  I said I’ll have a look.  I went down, came to a hover, and I couldn't see the troops.  The C&C immediately says you're right over them.  None of my crewmen could see him.  And all this took place in an instant.  And of course we were fired on from all directions.  Now the enemy enjoyed the privilege of having a number of hummocks, earthen piles if you will, that were overgrown with shrubbery, brush.  How they came to be there I’ll never know.  But they were there, and they numbered over 300.  Every one of these hummocks could be used by them as a firing position.  And the enemy would, from time to time, move their weapons from one position to another.  And using these as cover from anybody that would, that could be brought in to give me any amount of covering fire.  However, there was no covering fire.  They were doing all the firing.  And the only reason they would move from point to point was just to be able to more effectively bring their fire on me.  As I said, we came to a hover, and all this took place in an instant.  The man wasn't there.  I told the C&C I can't see him.  The grass was so high I suppose that my rotor wash folded the grass over him, and he did not have nerve enough to stand up because he heard all the firing going on.  And I immediately evacuated the area to the right.  I crossed a small stream, at which point the firing increased, and I told the C&C, I says hey they're most unfriendly down here.  He said, yes you just crossed the Cambodian border, that's where the main force is.  So I put that in the back of my mental file, I said I won't do that again.  And we talked it over, and he says well the man is still down there.  I said well we'll go get him, we'll try again.  Now if my crew had any hesitation at this point, this was the point where they should have said something.  But since I received no objection I figured they were as willing to go down there as I was. Cause they knew what was going to come about when we came down there.  And sure enough, we hovered, stopped our descent and hovered the aircraft in that same area.  Again, I was told that he's there.  He wouldn't stand. He would not stand up.  And of course we were being fired at again, all around the clock so to speak. And we were getting a few hits. This time I left rather hurriedly again.  But I left to the left instead of the right.  And avoided the area.  Something had to be done, or we were not going to get anybody out of there. And so I decided to move off to one side, about, I’d say maybe 100 yards, where I had a clear area, where the hummocks were not, were separated.  In other words, gave me room to maneuver.  And I continued to circle this area very low.  I was keeping constantly in motion.   And the reason I did this was, number one, it made me a moving target.   The enemy was still firing at me, but the chances of them hitting me is reduced because, because of my movement.   This also, I tended to use as a signal to the troops that were down there to show themselves to me, so that I can pick them up.  And occasionally I’d actually bring the aircraft down onto the ground, which is only a matter of, sometimes three, sometimes six or ten feet. Bring it down to the ground and I’d skid it in that same pattern.  And doing the same thing.  Finally, one man stood up, waving a shirt.  And we immediately maneuvered around, never stopped, and the crewman in the back just grabbed him by the arm and pulled him on board.  And this, I guess it took us a half an hour to find that one brave soul to stand up in that fire.  And I guess the others were watching. Because now they more and more showed themselves.  But there was never any great movement. There was never a group of two or three, or even what appeared to be a rush for rescue. There'd be one man, then there'd be another one.  I suppose what they were doing was thinking in their minds, well when he gets closer to me, that's when I’ll stand up.  But I couldn't, I couldn't tell where they were so I just had to stay were I was.  Especially since I had succeeded once.  But we filled up the aircraft with about eight or nine.  About, in other words, about a total of one third of the total that we had ultimately rescued.  And I needed fuel.  And some of these people were badly wounded, and they needed more attention than we could give them. So I went to a Special Forces camp at Moc Hoa.  That was about 15 minutes away.  Dropped the wounded off, and of course they were taken care of by the Special Forces medics, and their small infirmary that they had, aid station. I picked up the fuel, more fuel, went back.  And did the same thing, in the same general area.  Still I had no cover. No aerial cover, no ground cover.  No supporting ground fire.  And the problem that I faced originally was still there.  The enemy was still firing at me.  The only thing that was in my favor was the fact that they had surrounded this area.  And they had to be careful when they fired, and how they fired, because you can imagine, if we are in a surrounded area, they had the capability of hitting their own troops, because they're firing in.  And some of the projectiles of course are going to continue, and they could very possibly hit their own people. So they themselves know this. And they've got to reposition their weapons to bring me under fire. And to make sure that they have a clear field of fire, where I’m the only objective, and their own people are out of the way. And of course my movement is the other thing that's going for me.  I guess the other thing that's going for me is just the fact that I wasn't convinced that I couldn't do it.  And, because this is a normal attitude that any of us DUSTOFF pilots, I think, possessed.  That's the way we thought.  Again, we would occasionally be hit.  You could feel the, the enemy projectiles hitting the aircraft.  Especially when they came close.  And sometimes you could smell them.  That's the other thing about enemy fire, any fire.  If a bullet goes past your nose rather closely it actually has a distinctive odor, I assure you.  Like I said, none of us were hit.  And we collected about eight or ten more people.  Again, by this time I’m low on fuel, I need more fuel, the people need attention.  I might digress at this point and say that this second group was the most seriously wounded of the three groups that we picked up.  And they were, some of these individuals were very bad off.  One individual was partly eviscerated.  He was holding on to this stomach, this whole area, to keep the intestines in.  Some of them of course hanging out.  He was running.  Ran towards me.  Another man had his hand blown off.  A third man that I recall got up enough nerve to pick himself up off the grass and start running, but he was cut down by enemy fire.  And I knew right away the way he fell there was no sense even trying to go for him.  And I’ve decided, well I’ve been here long enough, we've got to get some more fuel.  These people need attention.  We went back.  Did the same thing. Dropped them off. Got them some more, better medical attention than we could give them. I picked up the fuel and went back a third time. And by now it's getting late in the afternoon, and I know that this is the last chance. If I don't get the rest of them at this point it's just going to be too dark. Also, the F100's came back and dropped a few bombs. Strafed with the 20 millimeters. And in talking with the C&C, he and I could talk, I could not talk to the F100's. I proposed to the C&C let me go down while he's bombing, that way I can feel more secure that the enemy is not going to be firing at me, since they're going to have to be evading the F100's. Air Force SOP wouldn't allow that. They said we're not dropping if he's down there. So I waited. And then I went back in again, after they had finished their mission. Which, incidentally, didn't diminish the enemy position at all.  At least not that I could tell. The enemy fire was just as heavy.  But as we picked up the wounded that were showing themselves, towards the end, and it's almost dark, two Cobras came over to give me cover.  And I might add they were really covering me closely.  They were only about 200 feet above me.  As I worked the area.  And of course they, on the radio, they made their presence known to me and we talked over what we were doing.  Well, as I said, it was getting dark, and it was almost dark.  And finally, I’m about ready to leave when one of my crewman detects one last man standing up, waving a shirt.  And he cannot be more than 10 yards from one of the firing positions, where we had been getting fired at from time to time all that afternoon.  Well, I knew we wanted to get him.  And I decided well, I’m going to go and back up.  And the reason I decided to go backwards, hover there backwards, was I fully expected that position to open up on me.  And I wanted to put as much metal between the enemy position and me and my crew.  So the bullets would be spent as they crashed through the structure.  And hopefully they wouldn't have enough strength to harm us.  Or at least not to a fatal degree anyhow.  Well, that tactic, I guess, was pretty good plan on may part, except that when I reached this individual, and my crewman in the rear says we got him, and I started takeoff, the enemy, not known to me, had repositioned an individual so that I actually hovered past him.  And when it came time for me to take off he was looking at me, and he was only about 30 yards away.  And of course he opened up on me.  And it sounded like he was in the cockpit with me, that's how loud it was.  He was that close.  Like I said, about 30 yards away.  And it seems if every bullet that penetrated that windscreen, for some, just by the divine design, seemed to just go off on one side or the other, and impact on my armor plate on either side of me.  Except the debris and the shrapnel that got me in the hand and above the knee and below the knee.  And one bullet actually glanced off the sole of my shoe.  And all this in an instant.  And it caused me to react, I guess from the shock of the hits.  The bullet glancing off my foot, so that I pulled back on the stick and pulled back on the power at the same time and the aircraft went off at a crazy angle off to the right.  The nose went way up.  The man that the crewman had in the rear had slipped out.  He was now, his legs were straddling the skid.  But my crewman still maintained his grip on his hand.  And he was holding onto a litter strap.  And he finally brought him back in, but by this time our aircraft was about 60 feet in the air.  I of course immediately alerted my co-pilot, says I’ve been hit.  And automatically I did that cause I had no idea how badly it was.  As it turned out it was nothing.  It was a flesh wound.  But the impact was enough to jostle me so to speak.  And there was no doubt about it, I temporarily lost control of the aircraft.  I wasn't making it do what I would have wanted it to do.  And he of course helped me bring it under control.  And I have to think back to the fact that I made what amounted to almost a prophetic statement. Cause when I went back for that man, I said well, this will be the last one.  And it damn near was. As it turned out we got him. Went back to Moc Hoa. Again, refueled and shut down. Course we had delivered the wounded to the medics over there. The purpose for the shutdown, of course by now it's dark, and now I want to make an assessment of battle damage.  Of course, my windscreen has been shot out.  Two of my radios have been shot out. My air speed indicator has been shot out. The Plexiglas lower plate, through with you can look when you land and so on, it's been shot out. And of course the rotor, the main rotor, it's got holes in it. I knew that, I could hear, cause they send up a whistle when they, when you have holes up there. That was not strange. I expected that.  But the main thing was, we found nothing damaged that was of a critical nature. The radios, I didn't have to talk to anybody.  The air speed indicator, I learned to fly without one, so, 20 some, no, yeah 27, 28 years before that learned to fly without an air speed indicator, so I figured I don't need that.  The co-pilot of course admonished me. He says, you mean you're going to go back with no air speed. I said yeah, I don't need it, you know. So, off we went.  Took about an hour to get back.  And of course I made the after action report.  And remember, I had been up since 5:00 o'clock that day.  And when I finished up, it was 11:00 o'clock at night.  And we had flown 11 hours total.  So I was a little bit tired. I didn't bother notifying the CO. Went to bed. Saw him at 6:00 o'clock the next morning. Gave him the report and recommended the entire crew for the Silver Star.  Which he agreed.  And I remember his statement. Says, well we'll make the recommendation, but don't be surprised if it's not downgraded to a Distinguished Flying Cross. Little did we know what would happen. But all in all it was an interesting day. And it's a day that you know that you've earned your money. I wasn't ashamed to go and get my paycheck that month. And I felt, I felt good at being spared. And my crew was spared. When all this is happening, you know, that's not the time to think and be worried. You'd be scared. You don't have time, you know. The job has got to be done, and our job was evacuating, retrieving, finding, locating those wounded. Administering first aid that would be of life saving nature. Getting them out of there. That's what we were doing.  And, as I said, the crew had ample opportunity to say let's think this thing out, and do we really have to do this. Cause we're not paid to do things that are that dangerous. Of course, you know, we are in a high risk environment, I know that. But they didn't. So their silence, to me, was, was their acquiescence to let's, let's continue the job. And I think this speaks well for the entire DUSTOFF medevac, medical evacuation community. And it shows that they were trained well.  They wanted to do their part, to do a good job. They never stopped. They did what they could to help the wounded, to ease their pain. On occasion, believe it or not, they were even able to administer IV’s while we were under fire.  I thought that was a terrific accomplishment on their part.  My co-pilot, Tyron Chamberlain, (inaudible)W1, it was his first flight with me. And his comment when we finished up and we were back at base, he said is everyday like that? I said well sometimes it's a little bit better than that. 

Interviewer:  Do you have any advice for today's medics?

Novosel:  Well, as always, and I hate to make the statement because it almost sounds like a cliche, but it stands as true today as it did then. That there is nothing that is going to sustain you in battle, to stay with you and make you a success in battle, as training that is applied and used properly.  The reason my people worked so well, they were trained well. And they didn't forget their training.  And they never stopped training. And they continued training when they had no missions going.  They continued and they cross-trained. My medic could do the crew chief's job. He could go up there and do a pre-flight. He could grease my rotor and do everything he had to do. My crew chief could do his job and then he could administer IV’s, help with the ambu bag if we had that. They were able to use the litter, the hoist. Even our pilots were cross trained to that extent. My CO on one mission, when I needed a medic, and he knew it was critical, he jumped on board. My Commanding Officer was my medic on one of my missions. And, again, I kind of emphasize, the dedication of these people. I still remember Colonel Lindsay. I can't recall what his exact title was up at Saigon. But he came down and flew a whole afternoon as my medic. Now this is a doctor exposing himself to that kind of situation. And yet, he didn't have to. After all, O6's are not supposed to be medics. They're supposed to be somewhere in an air-conditioned office, right? That's why they make O6's. Colonel Lindsay was with me and, like I said, spent the whole day. He gave IV’s and administered first aid to the wounded just the same as anybody else would. That's your medevac community.