The Defining Generation
Defining Human Rights
Sir Edward Artis
scariest good guy you'll ever meet," is how one powerful
Don Bendell was a throwback to another century when cowboys gave us a
tradition of good guys who lived by a code of the West, Ed Artis reaches
even further into history to find his own niche in the Twenty-First
Century. The Indiana Jones meets
Mother Teresa adventurer believes he is a knight, a true crusader
ordained to aid the less fortunate and to relieve the stress of the world.
Knightsbridge International, the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) he
co-founded with Dr. Sir James Laws in 1995 to provide humanitarian relief
to people in areas often too dangerous for others has delivered tons of
food to Afghanistan, medicine to Rwanda, and hospital equipment to rural
clinics in terrorist-controlled jungles of the Philippine Islands. He's
been shot at, threatened by border guards, detained by criminals, and even
unceremoniously dumped (without papers) in the nether regions of
"If it appears that I am somewhat foolish, I am!" he notes. "When I was younger I knew I wanted to be something but I didn't know what…and I still don't know what that is. I don't know what I'm going to be when I grow up! But I do know what I'm NOT going to be, and that's a complacent, apathetic, and sit on my ass kind of guy."
in Highland Park, Illinois, in 1945, Ed grew up in the San Francisco Bay
area city of Concord, California. The oldest of six children, he was the
kind of kid who challenge their parents, drive them crazy, invoke their
worry and break their hearts.
his youth Ed describes himself as a High
Potential, Under Achiever who found school boring and unchallenging.
Fascinated by foreign-language radio broadcasts as a young boy however, he
did find an expanding interest in the world beyond his native borders. At
night he would lay in bed, listing to his small radio to people talking in
foreign languages and trying to imagine what they were saying. But it was
a black and white television news report in English in 1960 that initiated
the 15-year-old boy's interest in helping unseen, foreign speaking
children that set a precedent that would follow him for the next fifty
later after building a successful career, Ed would define the motivation
that prompted his current world-wide humanitarian missions by noting,
"How could I enjoy a comparatively luxurious American lifestyle
without trying to help the world's most helpless and often the world's
Watching news reports of the devastation in South America first kindled
that feeling in Ed Artis in 1960; perhaps the first moment in his young
life when he found a sense of purpose. He and Richard Bailey, a lifelong
friend, teamed up going door-to-door in their neighborhood to gather
clothing and other supplies for the poor people who had just lost
everything in a disaster of nature. The young man with little grasp of
geography, and who had no idea of how he could get the collected supplies
to the disaster area thousands of miles away, approached the project as he
would so many like it later in life--crossing one
bridge at a time. He piled the clothes he had collected in his
father's car and got his father to drive he and Richard to his high
school, one of the few times in his young life that he went there eagerly.
For his teachers and fellow students it provided a new insight to an
otherwise-problem-student. They joined his effort, the school following Ed
and Richrd's example and leadership began to collect even more supplies
which were soon thereafter donated to the Red Cross for transportation to
young Artis' first relief effort reflected a previously unrecognized and
admirable potential, his actions little more than a year later clearly
illustrate that even good people can make tragic mistakes. Ed celebrated
his 17th birthday by skipping school with some of his buddies. They stole
a car, broke into a liquor store for beer, then into a sporting goods
store and stole some guns and then took the window out of a jewelry store
for things they could sell for cash, before finding themselves in a
high-speed chase with the California Highway Patrol which Ed and his
friends lost. "We're lucky we weren't killed," he recalls.
was confined to a Juvenile Detention facility for a period of 28 days.
"I had always thought that I was tough when I was growing up,"
he says, "but after getting my ass beat repeatedly by some really
TOUGH guys, I began to realize I wasn't really such a tough guy after
all." While acknowledging the wrongness of their son's
transgressions, Ed's heartbroken parents stood by him. One of the critical
moments during his confinement was the day his father came to visit and
brought his twin brother, an uncle whom Ed was meeting for the first time.
"There I sat in my (prisoner's) uniform of jeans and a white tee
shirt, trying to face my dad and an uncle who I had never met who came to
visit me in uniform--he was a First Sergeant in the Army. I was ashamed of
what I had done, I was embarrassed by the grief I had caused my parents,
and I was scared."
the juvenile court proceedings that followed, Ed was made a Ward of the
Court but allowed to return home under his parents' supervision and
ordered to return to high school until he was old enough to go into the
U.S. Army. The angry judge had offered the delinquent teen two
alternatives: FIVE years in a California Youth Authority juvenile
detention facility or THREE years as a volunteer in the U.S. Army. The
memory of his uncle in uniform was still stuck in the back of his mind,
although the decision he made was based upon a much more banal reasoning.
"Let's see," he thought, "FIVE years getting beat up every
day in CYA or THREE years in an army uniform. I did the math and quickly
agreed to join the Army." It was three months before young Ed's
birthday but with the court's permission his parents signed the paperwork
to allow their 17-year-old to join the Army. Soon he was on his way to
Fort Ord, California, to begin Basic Training.
was the Army's decision, not Ed's, that then sent him into the medical
field to become a healer rather than a hunter. "I saw myself as being
an Airborne Infantryman but back then the Army didn't ask what we wanted;
they gave us a bunch of tests and decided what we would be good at,"
he recalls. "During Basic Training Larry Allen, a buddy of mine, and
I would check the bulletin board to see where we were going. One day our
names appeared together for training as medics and then I was on my way to
Fort Sam Houston (Texas)."
completing the basic medical course Private Ed Artis did manage to get one
of the options he requested and was sent to
March 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson sent the first American combat
troops into Vietnam, Ed Artis had spent two years in the Army and with one
year remaining in his enlistment, wanted desperately to serve in Vietnam.
But while the Vietnam War is remembered as the dominant combat action of
the 1960s wherein American soldiers were sent overseas to confront
world-wide expansion of Communist ideology in the Cold War, America faced
challenges in its own hemisphere. As Vice President in 1961, Johnson
witnessed the danger the spread of Communism in the Caribbean posed to the
United States. Even after the Cuban missile crisis was resolved in
America's favor, insurgent movements in the Caribbean and in Latin America
posed a real danger that new "Communist Cubas"
Dominican Republic was one such danger zone. That Latin American nation
that occupies the eastern two-thirds of the
intervention in the Dominican Republic provided Ed Artis with his first
combat actions as a medic. Though that conflict is little-remembered as
one of the United State's wars, before the United States had accomplished
its mission of stabilizing the government, 8 Americans were killed and 200
were wounded. Furthermore for Ed, it gave the young man a glimpse of life
outside the United States. The people of the Dominican Republic were
largely poor and subsisting with great need in a combat zone. Ed and his
fellow medics felt great sadness at their plight and did what they could
do to treat injuries and health needs. Often they were confronted with
strange diseases or other circumstances beyond their training but, with a
positive "can-do" attitude, they learned to improvise. "I
delivered by first baby in the back of an ambulance," Ed recalls with
a laugh, "while reading instructions from an Army field manual.
the time Ed returned to Fort Bragg late in 1965 the war in Vietnam was
escalating and he desired more than ever to serve in that theater. Knowing
that his assignment to the 82d Airborne would keep him stateside more than
likely for the duration, the following spring when his 3-year active duty
enlistment was up he left the Army. It was an action that cost him a
$10,000 re-enlistment bonus but that didn't concern him. Ed Artis was
becoming the kind of pragmatic volunteer willing to make personal
sacrifice and sneak in the back door if the end result would accomplish the
desired goal. It is a pattern that marks his efforts to this day. Little
more than two years later, in 1968, he re-joined the Army and volunteered
for Vietnam duty only to end up being reassigned to the 82d Airborne
Division at Fort Bragg where he served until he was eligible to re-enlist
yet again, this time with a guaranteed tour in Vietnam. This move also
required that he waive a $10,000 VRB (Variable Reenlistment Bonus) in
order to obtain the GUARANTEED assignment to Vietnam.
1970, Sergeant Edward Artis had achieved his goal when he was assigned to
the 451st Medical Detachment (OA) at Tay Ninh, Vietnam. The 541st served
as the Medical Unit attached to the 187th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC).
Not to be lost is the irony of that unit's designation as the
"Crusaders" or the unit crest which features a shield and
crossed lances, then an unknown foreshadowing of Ed's work in later years
as a knight.
work hours, which in Vietnam was
pretty much a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week time period, Sergeant Artis' job
was to treat sick, injured and wounded American soldiers. He was NCOIC
(Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge) for the dispensary and his medical
activities involved treating a steady stream of normal sickcall patients
and other incidents and combat casualties. As an Airborne medic he and
others in the 541st often flew on the helicopters of the 187th AHC,
providing medical coverage for the flights as they engaged the enemy while
at times pulling double duty as door gunners.
"People talk about Vietnam--the WAR," says Ed. "I like to talk about Vietnam--the PEOPLE." Ed's heart ached for the Vietnamese and Cambodians in his area who had so little and who suffered so much. As a medic he, along with others in the 541st Medical Detachment, often spent much of their free time trying to assuage the suffering. They volunteered their help at the Provincial Hospital beyond the barbed wire of their base camp inside Tay Ninh City. When they did receive free time the American medics and even some of their officers who were medical doctors, flew from Tay Ninh to the Special Forces Camp near Snul on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia to spend a night. The following morning they would drive or walk across the border to minister to the needs of hundreds of people in a Cambodian refugee camp, putting in a full but personally gratifying day of service to others before returning to the Special Forces camp before nightfall.
the mid-point of Sergeant Artis' first one-year tour of duty in Vietnam he
was convinced that this was where he belonged. He volunteered to extend
for an additional tour of duty and was given a 30-day leave to return
home. During his brief R & R back in the states he used his time to
share with others the plight of the Vietnamese and to begin humanitarian
drives to collect food, clothing, and other needs. He stretched his 30-day
leave to 60 days, speaking wherever he could to any who would listen, in
order to begin a continuing relief effort. When he returned to Vietnam it
was to distribute goods arriving from friends in the United States, as
well as to write home pleading for more. His program was broadcast in news
stories back home with headlines such as: "Good Samaritan
Sergeant" and "He Wants the Shirt off Your Back." In 1971
the young man who less than a decade earlier was a juvenile delinquent
faced with jail was named one of the 5 Outstanding Young Men in California
by the California Jaycees. He was the youngest recipient of that
prestigious title at that time, as well as the first to be so-named while
serving in the military. That same year he was also nominated as One of
the Ten Outstanding Young Men in
Today Ed acknowledges that his early efforts on behalf of the Vietnamese and Cambodian people, "Is where I began my career as an international humanitarian, and for that opportunity and experience in Vietnam I will forever be grateful." It was also the proving ground for skills he would need later in life when he would have to resort to unusual and unorthodox methods of helping others. In Vietnam Ed Artis learned the ways of the black market, using it to obtain needed medical supplies. He also honed admirable skills as a Robin Hood-kind-of thief, called "scroungers" in military slang. If specific supplies were desperately needed by a Provincial hospital or a Vietnamese clinic or orphanage, and if he couldn't obtain those supplies via either black market or smugglers, Sergeant Artis would don the uniform of an Army officer and boldly sign them out of a larger U.S. Army or ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) supply depot. By that late-stage of the war, the U.S. Army was turning most of its material over to the Vietnamese leaders, many of whom in turn used those supplies to line their own pockets with cash, justifying to Ed his unconventional acts of thievery or deception to help the people who needed it most. He even "appropriated" pre-fabricated buildings, paying off local truck drivers to transport them to outlying villages where they could be erected for shelter, clinics, and schools. Those experiences were, he says, an, "Invaluable boot camp for learning what it takes to be a resourceful, don't-take-no-for-an-answer, big-hearted, danger-loving, swashbuckling one-man humanitarian relief force."
By 1972 most U.S. Forces returned home from Vietnam, and Sergeant Artis continued his relief efforts from afar. His advocacy for the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees garnered considerable attention at home, and he was featured on several television talk shows. This became important in that years later it would open doors for him in the professional world of television and film. Meanwhile in 1973, because of the great work he was doing to support the Vietnamese and Cambodians the U.S. Army discharged him for the public good due his "Importance to National Safety, Health or Interest." For the next two years he continued his self-imposed mission, and then began working at his first real civilian job with the Junior Achievement program in Southern California.
In 1975 Ed watched the news to see pictures of Vietnamese being plucked from the rooftops of the American Embassy in Saigon as South Vietnam surrendered to the encroaching Communists. He was deeply saddened to see these people who had endured a decade of war buoyed by hopes of American support, suddenly abandoned and left to a tragic fate. Under the Communists there was no further hope for his aid program. For Ed Artis it was as if one poignant chapter of his life had suddenly closed and it was time to write the next.
The next chapter of Ed's life, written over a span of nearly two decades following the fall of Saigon, was unremarkable. Like many other Vietnam Veterans, the former soldier turned to personal goals, seeking to establish a home, career, and a future. After two years with Junior Achievement he found success in mortgage banking and real estate in Los Angeles, California, and then in the early 1980s became involved in television and film production. Still nagging at the back of his mind however, were images of the poor people he had seen in the Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. At times he felt guilty in his personal success, recalling his early feelings of shame for enjoying a comparatively luxurious lifestyle without trying to do something for the world's most helpless.
In 1992 he traveled to the Soviet Union to assist in production of a television documentary about Russia's veterans of the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Among these former enemies he was quickly welcomed; he even became the first American member of the Soviet Vietnam War Veterans Association. Again his heart ached at the plight of others. "These," he says, "were Vietnam Veterans without a V.A. (the American Veterans Administration)." So Ed began funneling humanitarian aid into the U.S.S.R. to help these veterans of a war in which they had served in on opposing sides.
The following year Ed was back in Russia delivering aid and making new friends when he was inducted into a self-styled Order of the Knights of Malta. It was an entirely spontaneous decision with far-reaching end results. "At the time I wasn't interested," Ed says of the organization that was founded in the late 11th century when they established hospitals along the routes to and in Jerusalem during the First and Second Crusades. "Back then I thought the Knights of Malta was just another Social Club with a costume."
In fact the Hospitallers have centuries of tradition in benevolence and service, derived from medieval knightly service. One of the modern-day Knights of Malta Ed met in Russia was Dr. James Laws, a practicing Osteopathic Cardiologist from Dayton, Ohio. This knight had come to Russia with 8 to 10 pacemakers, a defibrillator, and an EKG machine badly needed in Soviet hospitals. Ed was impressed by Dr. Laws own efforts on behalf of others, doubly-so when he saw American Army jump wings that Laws wore on his jacket. When the two men began talking, over a fist full of beers later that night, he learned that Laws had not only served with the 82d Airborne Division, but in Ed's own unit, the 3d Battalion, 325th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The two had not met before however. Six years older than Artis, Dr. Laws had served in that unit about two years before Artis and before the Vietnam War.
In August 1993 Dr. Laws watched as Ed Artis was knighted. Kneeling beside Sir Edward on that occasion was Yuri Alexeyev, Vice Governor at that time of the Soviet Ural Region of Russia. As the Soviet prepared to be knighted himself he told Ed, "Today you will be the first foreigner knighted in Russia. You will be my brother."
As is to be expected whenever someone steps forward and becomes a public figure, today Ed Artis has his share of detractors; small-minded and often jealous individuals who seek to find fault rather than praise achievement. Many of those make light of his title: Sir Edward Artis, and his claim to be a modern-day knight. For Artis knighthood has nothing to do with ancient ritual, or even a modern-day benevolent organization that bestows such titles. To him, knighthood is a matter of personal dedication to others. In his own mind, on that day he swore an oath and accepted a challenge that indeed transformed his thoughts and subsequent actions making him, if not a knight in shining armor, then at least a knight in a Kevlar vest. He is that, indeed!
Laws was himself enamored with Ed's stories of both his early work in
Vietnam and more recently in the Soviet Union. He asked Ed to take him
with him on one of his next trips. That mission as they call them today,
came the following year when, immediately following the genocide in
Before setting out on their second mission together, and with dreams of many more to follow, the two men organized for the future. They incorporated Knightsbridge International, a charitable Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) to collect and distribute aid to the needy. They also established a criteria of service that would become their mantra. "These are our rules," say Sir Edward Artis. "We're not in the God business, we don't want to change their politics or religion. It (the mission) must be high adventure and must be humanitarian, and it's got to be in an area where few would ever go. If it doesn't fit these criteria, we're not interested."[ii] In November/December 1995 that place was Afghanistan, the first of six such relief missions--all but two of those missions coming after that country was made even more dangerous in the aftermath of events on September 11, 2001.
Before they returned to war-torn Afghanistan in 2001 however, there were other hot spots desperately needing their aid. The two men visited Kyrgyzstan in 1995 and Nicaragua in 1996, mostly to provide dental missions but also bringing collected supplies of food, clothing, and medications. 1997 found them in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and the following years there were missions to Ingushetia, Cambodia, Albania-Kosovo, Thailand, Burma, as well as two return trips to Nicaragua.
The two men's third return to Afghanistan was planned long in advance of the September 11 attack in the United States that within weeks had American forces fighting there to rout the Taliban. It was a desperate time when a stranger from America was exposed to all manner of danger, whether from Taliban terrorists or simply nervous Afghan warlords seeking to protect their turf. Still Knightsbridge came, hauling tons of rice to isolated and starving Afghan villages, purchasing blankets and tents from black marketers to distribute to families without shelter, and promising to keep returning with more as needed. Ed, Dr. Lawas, and a newer member of the Knightsbridge Team Sir Walt Ratterman would personally sit down with the various elders in each village to learn what their specific needs were, promising to obtain them and return.
The missions of Knight Bridge International (KBI) gave the two knights, by now numbering nine volunteers, both the adrenaline-filled excitement they craved, with the added bonus and focal point of their missions being to help those who were helpless. Dr. Laws and the other Knights personally funded much of their needs and Ed contributed by proffering his personal credit card to purchase supplies and fund other mission related costs when there was no money available from other sources. They also raided American storehouses filled with unwanted medical supplies that could serve a useful purpose elsewhere in the world. Ed notes that when a surgical kit is opened in an American hospital, that often only about 30% to 50% of its contents are used. The remainder, including catheters, bandages, and other useful materials is generally then discarded. As news of their great work spread, other organizations such as the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and the REMEDY Program at Yale University, Sharing Resources Worldwide and most recently The Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach began collecting and donating supplies for KBI to transport to areas of the world where others could not get in to or often simply feared to go.
Ed quickly points out that every item donated in the United States is personally delivered "Hand to hand, eye to eye, heart to heart." There is no overhead for KBI, no offices to pay rent and utilities for, and none of the volunteers (which occasionally welcomes one or two new faces for a specific mission) receives a salary. "The point is not only to provide lifesaving food, medicine and shelter but to do so with dignity and without disruption to existing tribal or communal ways of life," KBI points out. When distributing supplies it is not uncommon for an arriving truck to be instantly mobbed by needy and starving people. Sir Edward demands order and follows yet another rule--"People with guns will not be served." He has seen individuals who might otherwise turn the press of the crowd into a playground for bullies hand off their weapons to others while approaching the truck for a bag of wheat or rice. Ed uses a simple punch-card to record what each family receives so that no one is overlooked. In one recent operation in Afghanistan, in addition to providing clothes, blankets and tents, KBI distributed more than 300 tons of food, enough to feed 15,000 refugees for up to four months.
Even in this admirable work Sir Edward Artis is not without his critics. His unorthodox manner of operation, such facts of life as that he takes no crap from anyone and has on occasion paid a bribe to a border guard in order to be able to take a truck of food into a needy village, has garnered his share of enemies. Others have said of his medical missions that he is simply taking the cast-off of American hospitals, useless garbage, and spreading it around the world. Indeed, no good deed goes unpunished but Sir Edward while hurt by such unfair criticism, returns again and again.
Over the last five years KBI has conducted several medical missions to the Philippine Islands. After one recent visit Bantay BATA 163 Television reported, "(These are) boxes and boxes of (surplus) medicines and medical supplies and equipment worth millions of dollars that would have been left in warehouses of United States hospitals (or sent) down to the incinerator. Thanks to Sir Edward Artis these have just found their way to small hospitals and health centers in the far-flung provincial areas of the Philippine Islands."
Noted Philippine Senator Ramon Magsaysay, Jr., "This (supplies) will give country hospitals and the poor a lot of good, high standard equipment to practice good medicine at a very low cost."
In the summer of 2004 Sir Edward was delivering additional medical supplies in the poor regions of Sulu Province in the Southern Philippines when, at age 59 he suffered a heart attack and went into cardiac arrest. He was rushed over muddy and rutted roads late at night to the Jolo Provincial Hospital where he was laid on a gurney he delivered during a previous visit. There he died--for a full two minutes, before medical equipment from that same previous visit re-started his heart. "My life was saved by the very equipment I brought to the Philippines to help others," he told me. "Talk about KARMA!"
"We're not heroes, we're simply doing what's right," says Ed. There has never been a better time than right now for chivalry--for good men and women to step forward. We'll go where others don't or won't. We'd rather do something, instead of sitting on our hands and complaining about what we see going on. If you call yourself a good person, and you're not doing something to help somebody else, you're a fraud."[iii]
Says Walt Ratterman, a member of KBI who has joined Sir Edward and Dr. Laws on many of their missions of mercy as well as mounting missions of his own now, "People need to get out of this country and open their eyes--and most people don't. This kind of work has opened my eyes.
Edward Artis (L) and Dr. Sir James Laws (R) deliver supplies to needy
Afghan villagers in 2001.
NOTE: In 2006 the story of Sir Edward Artis, Dr. Sir James Laws, and Sir
Walt Ratterman was released in a moving documentary titled "Beyond
the Call." Produced and
directed by Academy Award nominated Filmmaker Adrian Belic, you can order
online from http://www.beyondthecallthemovie.com
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
All Rights Reserved
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