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Originally published June 17, 2011 at 9:18 PM | Page modified June 17, 2011 at 11:17 PM

Federal Way pilot retires after front-line service spanning Vietnam, Afghanistan

In 1969, Eugene Krueger left his young wife, Sharon, and headed off to Vietnam, where the 20-year-old's heroism as an Army pilot would be recognized with two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Bronze Star.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Not the only one

The retirement of Gene Kruger, a helicopter pilot who began his Army career in 1969, will not mark the end of service for Vietnam veterans with the Washington National Guard.

Master Sgt. David Brauneis, another Vietnam veteran, continues to serve with the Washington Guard's Special Forces Group. His post-9/11 deployments include service in the Philippines.

Hal Bernton

quotes Thank you for your long service to our country, CWO Krueger! Individuals like you... Read more
quotes Thank you Mr. Krueger. Read more
quotes Thank you sir for your tremendous service to the United States of America. Read more

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In 1969, Eugene Krueger left his young wife, Sharon, and headed off to Vietnam, where the 20-year-old's heroism as an Army pilot would be recognized with two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Bronze Star.

Krueger returned home, raised four daughters and embarked on a civilian career with Northwest Airlines while serving with the Washington National Guard.

But Krueger was not through with war.

As part of a marathon military career that ended this week with his retirement, he returned to the front lines as a pilot in Afghanistan. There he spent four months in 2006 flying missions out of Bagram Air Field.

Though the Pentagon doesn't track Vietnam-era soldiers who served in post-9/11 combat zones, Krueger is one of a small number of service members with dual combat duty in two of the nation's longest conflicts.

It's a distinction Krueger never expected when he first enlisted, and it offers him an unusual perspective on wartime service.

The Federal Way man bears no nostalgia for Vietnam, a blood-soaked conflict that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 American service members — more than nine times the numbers killed to date in Iraq and Afghanistan. He recalls his homecoming from Vietnam in 1970, when anti-war protesters pelted tomatoes and other vegetables at his military bus after it left Travis Air Force Base in California.

"I feel good the way current war veterans are being treated," he said. "It is great to feel welcome and appreciated when you come back from the war because obviously you put your life on the line."

But Krueger took pride in the efficiency of the helicopter units in Vietnam as pilots routinely flew more than 130 hours a month to ferry supplies, drop soldiers into combat zones and rescue those who came under attack.

"The measure of success was, 'What did you haul? Did you take your objective or get your mission accomplished?' " Krueger said.

By contrast, in Afghanistan, arriving at a time when the Army's focus was still on Iraq, Krueger often found himself frustrated by the slower pace. "I've become somewhat bored with my tasking here over the past few days," Krueger wrote in a March 6, 2006, journal entry. "I haven't had a mission in five days and all of my training flights since last Saturday have been canceled. Hopefully, my ... training flight for tonight will happen. I can only entertain myself so long!"

He also chafed at inefficiencies he found in an Army that had become much more bureaucratic.

During the Vietnam era, for example, cargo could be quickly loaded into slings and then hauled by Chinooks to and from combat outposts. But during his Afghanistan tour, cargo was loaded inside the helicopter, a more time-consuming task that forced the helicopter to idle on the ground for hours with engines running so that pilots could escape quickly if the aircraft came under attack.

Krueger suggested that the unit consider slings, but to no avail.

"My argument is we could do the mission in half the time, thus saving half the fuel, half the crew time, half the maintenance, half the $$$," Krueger wrote in a journal entry. "This should be a no-brainer."

Tested in battle

Krueger, who grew up in North Dakota, deployed to Vietnam after training as a Huey helicopter pilot. Soon he was dropping Green Berets and other soldiers into combat zones, and often taking them out under fire.

During a 1969 mission near Khe Sanh that gained him a Distinguished Flying Cross, Krueger participated in the rescue of Special Forces soldiers and a downed Marine gunship crew.

"Despite the hazards of gusting winds, intense enemy fire and a lack of visibility due to nightfall," according to the award citation, Krueger maneuvered his aircraft directly over the teams and maintained his position until ordered to vacate the area due to fire coming from at least five different locations.

"Gene was one of our youngest pilots, but was very well respected," said Gene Franck, who served in Vietnam with Krueger. "I always felt it was something that just came naturally to him."

During their down time, the pilots would swap tales of war and family over Budweisers, which could be purchased at the PX in an era when liquor was not banned from combat zones.

"You would get to know them like brothers," Kreuger said.

One more time

While serving later in the Washington National Guard, Krueger helped train a new generation of pilots that went off to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2005, a friend working at the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., asked Krueger to fill a four-month slot for an instructor/pilot with the New York-based 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.

He agreed. Early on the morning of Feb. 16, 2006, he again said goodbye to his wife to head off to war. This time he was a 56-year-old, white-haired grandfather.

During his time in Afghanistan, Krueger, serving as a chief warrant officer 5, never came under fire from enemy forces as he had so often in Vietnam.

But there were tense moments flying Chinook helicopters through the rugged terrain of eastern Afghanistan. On one mission, deep into a seven-hour run dropping off supplies, Krueger encountered what he noted in his journal as a "hellish combination of sand and rainstorm," which reduced visibility to near zero and forced an unscheduled stopover until the weather abated.

There also was tragedy. Another helicopter from Bagram crashed as the crew attempted a difficult nighttime landing, and the six crew members and four passengers died.

Krueger choked up at memorial service as they spoke the names of the dead in a final roll call. But he skipped the loading of the flag-draped coffins into a C-17 later that day. Instead, he volunteered for another helicopter mission.

"I think it was better that I get back in the saddle and ride," he wrote in his journal. "... Flying is always good therapy for me."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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