On Dec. 1, 1969 Artie Kellar Jr. and Gerald Duncan were on a helicopter in Vietnam when Kellar was hit by a round that tore a silver dollar-sized hole in his right leg just above the ankle. Duncan tied a tourniquet over the wound that kept Kellar from bleeding to death on the way back to base.
The two men were reunited for the first time this week as Duncan stopped by Kellar’s home in Irrigon during a cross-country trip.
“This guy here saved my life,” Kellar said.
Back in 1969, Kellar was 18 and Duncan was 21. Both were “Copperheads” — gunners for the Army’s 162nd Assault Helicopter Company. Kellar had enlisted at 17 and Duncan had been drafted.
Duncan said door gunner was the most dangerous job in the Army — one buddy told him during his infantry days he got shot at maybe twice, but as soon as he went up in a helicopter he got shot at 15 times on his first day. Gunners were more likely to get hit than the pilots, he said, because enemies shooting at the craft had a habit of aiming directly at the helicopter instead of slightly ahead of it.
On Dec. 1 they were protecting troop carriers when they took fire. Suddenly, Kellar was “grabbing his leg and screaming.”
It’s interesting what people think of in a moment like that, Duncan said.
“What was going through my mind at that time was that he was bleeding all over my helicopter, and he was not going to be there to help clean it up at the end of the day,” he said.
He jumped into action, applying a tourniquet and providing medical care until they landed. Kellar said the feeling of getting shot was “like being hit with a 10 pound sledgehammer and your leg is on concrete.”
His fighting days over, Kellar was transported back to the United States to recover at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“It took a year for me to learn how to walk again,” he said.
Eventually he learned to move well enough to be trained as a mechanic and work at various car dealerships, including Sherrell Chevrolet and Harley Swain Subaru in Hermiston.
Duncan, too, returned to civilian life, growing out his hair and for a while staying quiet about the fact that he had been overseas so he could avoid the vitriol that was heaped on Vietnam veterans after the war. Kellar remembers people screaming “baby killer” and “woman killer” at him while he and other soldiers were being wheeled out of a plane “on our backs and full of holes.”
The men lost touch for many years, finally finding each other online as social media made it easier for members of the 162nd to start reconnecting.
“I saw on a Facebook photo, someone said ‘This guy saved my life,’” Duncan said. “I had kind of forgotten about it.”
They corresponded online. Duncan, who has been living in Kansas, decided to travel around the country, including a stop in Portland to see his adopted daughter. Afterward, he came to Kellar’s home in Irrigon, where he joked that Kellar didn’t look the same as he remembered. He enjoyed looking at Kellar’s medals, photos and other mementos, as his own were all stolen shortly after the war when he momentarily took his eye off his suitcase at the Los Angeles airport.
Kellar will always be deeply grateful for what Duncan did, but Duncan is modest about his actions that day in 1969.
“Everything I did for him was kind of automatic,” he said. “It was what we were trained to do. If it had happened to me, he would have done the same thing.”
Contact Jade McDowell at email@example.com or 541-564-4536.