MANATEE -- Retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Knisely, a Dustoff Association Hall of Famer, flew a rescue mission Wednesday -- 47 years after he was shot down in Vietnam at the battle of Hue-Phu Bai during the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive.
Knisely, assisted by C. J. Bannister, director of veterans services for Goodwill Manasota, took off from Dolphin Aviation at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport to fly an Iraq War veteran and his service dog from Ocala to Macon, Ga., as part of the volunteer Veterans Airlift Command. It was his fourth mission for Airlift.
"It's a labor of love," said Knisely, 69, who flew UH-1 Huey helicopters to evacuate U.S. casualties from Vietnam battlefields. Those unarmed helicopters, called dustoffs, were frequently the target of enemy fire.
Knisely's mission this week was to transport Army Cpl. Thomas Cannon, who was wounded in an improvised explosive attack in Iraq in 2011 and subsequently diagnosed with stage 3 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and pulmonary fibrosis. His lymphoma is in remission but now is stage 4.
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Cannon has been training in Ocala with a medical service German shepherd received from Guardian Angels.
Veterans Airlift Command flew Cannon and his dog from Ocala to Allentown, Pa., with Knisely and Bannister taking the first leg of the journey in Knisely's four-seat Cirrus aircraft.
Knisely is reluctant to talk about Vietnam, preferring to keep the spotlight on Veterans Airlift Command and the work being done with Goodwill Manasota, which is supplying the fuel for the flight to Macon.
Knisely, a native of Osprey and graduate of the University of South Florida, was the co-pilot of a dustoff mission in April 1968 to extract six wounded Americans when his helicopter was struck by a Viet Cong rocket-propelled grenade, severing the tail boom.
The flight crew managed to fly the spinning helicopter about one-quarter mile before landing in the jungle on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The crew chief was killed, and the medic was thrown clear from the aircraft and rescued almost immediately.
"I was knocked out in the crash and came to with a broken leg. The pilot and I spent three days crawling around the jungle with bad guys all around us. We had no food or water, and I was listed as missing in action," Knisely said.
He lost 27 pounds before a rescue team could fight its way past Viet Cong to reach him and the pilot. Knisely spent nine months in the hospital recuperating.
During his 28-year career, he flew an estimated 5,316 patients.
Decades after Vietnam, Knisely was assigned to CENTCOM and helped establish evacuation and hospitalization plans for Operation Desert Shield to liberate Kuwait.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf credited Knisely as the "medical architect" for designing and assembling the largest network of aeromedical evacuation assets in combat history, according to the Dustoff Hall of Fame website.
"He is part of Goodwill's veterans task force," Bannister said of Knisely. "We couldn't be more proud to be partnering with him and the Veterans Airlift Command."
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.