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There was a story on the front page of the Seattle Times about an unusual man, a man of my own generation. Eugene Krueger is just a month or two older than I and is a veteran of the Vietnam War, just as I am. But that is where the similarities part. He is also now a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
Warrant Officer Krueger flew helicopters in Vietnam. We who fought in that war will never forget the sound of choppers in the distance. The Huey had a unique sound. That deep-throated whop-whop-whop-whop of its rotor blade in the distance meant so many things to us. It was the arrival of the protective firepower of a gun-ship, or the courage, care, and hope of a medivac chopper. For those of us in Force Recon, when we were under attack, the sound of an approaching Chinook with its twin rotors pounding the air was the sound of our deliverer.
Those pilots would set down, under heavy fire, the door gunner giving furious fire support on his 50 cal. as we scrambled aboard, then shoved our own weapons out the portholes to fire away at the muzzle flashes of the enemy coming at us out of the thick canopy, or the tall elephant grass around us. When we were all aboard those big, strange-looking Chinooks would lift off quickly getting us the hell out of harm’s way. They would often be full of bullet holes when we landed back in the rear, safe and sound. Those moments under fire were always surreal, but the chopper pilots in their workhorse machines will forever occupy a very special place in our memories. They were there with us. They were not at 30,000 feet. dropping bombs, or flashing by at Mach 1 to drop napalm. They came to us where we were. They touched the earth, entered into the intimacy of war right there with us. They, too, looked the enemy in the eye and did not back down.
In 1969, Eugene Krueger left his young wife to fly Huey gunships in Vietnam. He was one of the youngest to be doing so, but his skill was recognized and admired by his fellow pilots. During his tour in Vietnam he earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Bronze Star. Like the rest of us in that war, when he came home to America in 1970 he was met with derision rejection by society. He, like the rest of us, went on to a civilian career, in his case, with Northwest Airlines. But he remained in the Washington National Guard, training new generations of chopper pilots.
It's here where Eugene Krueger's story becomes unusual. At age sixty-two he left his bride again to go to Afghanistan. He has just recently returned from his tour there. Unlike his return from Vietnam, this time he came home to the applause and deep respect that his service to the nation deserves. Warrant Officer Krueger's experience in two wars, forty years apart, gives him a unique perspective. There are many things that frustrated him about how things are done today. He says, "There's too much bureaucracy now." In Vietnam you were able to be more flexible at the unit level than is possible now. But he also recognized the same courage, dedication to one another, and commitment to the greater good in the young men and women of this generation that he saw in his own comrades in Vietnam.
Chief Warrant Officer 5, Eugene Krueger, is retiring now after a four-decade long career in the service. As a Vietnam veteran I say, "Welcome home — again — brother." May you have a long and happy retirement. Know that you have the thanks of a grateful nation. Peace to you, finally.