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From Vietnam to Afghanistan, war bookends Federal Way pilot's military career

Federal Way resident Gene Krueger pilots a UH-1H helicopter in Vietnam in this 1969 photo. - Courtesy photo
Federal Way resident Gene Krueger pilots a UH-1H helicopter in Vietnam in this 1969 photo.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

As an army helicopter pilot in Vietnam, Gene Krueger had nerves of steel — or as he would say, he was young and stupid.

On Dec. 2, 1969, Krueger came to the assistance of a downed Marine crew, piloting a UH-1H helicopter into an area under attack.

“Despite the hazards of gusting winds, intense enemy fire and lack of visibility due to nightfall, Chief Warrant Officer Krueger succeeded in keeping the aircraft at a stationary hover below the tree line,” the official report said. “He maintained his position until ordered to vacate the area due to the intense enemy fire from at least five different locations.”

For that act of bravery, Krueger earned one of two Distinguished Flying Crosses. He performed a similar death-defying extraction in June 1969:

“He lowered his aircraft into the dense jungle with only inches of clearance and held his position until the team was secure and ready to be lifted out… He displayed superior fortitude as intense enemy fire was directed at his aircraft.”

Krueger said his most frightening moment in combat involved a fuel tank on his helicopter that had been shot. As fuel sprayed the crew’s faces and soaked the cabin, Krueger feared the aircraft would ignite in a fireball. He landed the helicopter in South Vietnam, with a dead engine, in about two minutes.

“If faced with the same situation today, how would I act and react?” he said, recalling the incident. “That was probably my scariest event in Vietnam.”Gene Krueger holds a compilation of journal entries from his service in Afghanistan.

Krueger will be the keynote speaker at a Veterans Day observance called “Honoring Our Own” at 1 p.m. Nov. 12 at Todd Beamer High School. The Federal Way resident retired in June 2011 from the National Guard, a few years after a four-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. In between Vietnam and the Middle East, Krueger worked for Northwest Airlines and managed SeaTac airport for a few years in the late-1980s. In 1996, he worked full time with the Washington National Guard as a helicopter instructor pilot and became the state’s first Command Chief Warrant Officer.

At the Veterans Day observance, Krueger will share his thoughts on service, stewardship, life lessons and the ultimate sacrifice.

“Service is not limited to those in uniform,” said Krueger, 62, at his Federal Way home. “We all in various ways contribute to the good of the United States.”

Krueger was born and raised on a farm in North Dakota. He married his high school sweetheart, Sharon, then headed to the jungles of Southeast Asia.

His initial interest in the military came during high school. Krueger wanted to fly planes someday, and the U.S. Army did not require a college degree. Two weeks after graduating high school, he was on the way to basic training, then flight school. At age 19, he went to Vietnam.

Krueger noted what has changed in the military — and what has not changed — over a 44-year stretch. He remembers riding a bus to the San Francisco airport after Vietnam as protestors pelted the vehicle with vegetables and tomatoes. Nowadays, men and women in the military receive a hero’s homecoming. In today’s military, husbands and wives can live together on base. They can also communicate with loved ones daily through email. Forty years ago, it took weeks for a letter to reach his wife. Phone calls were not an option.

In 2006, he piloted missions in Afghanistan before that war’s escalation. To his knowledge, he was never shot at by an enemy during routine “deliberate missions” in what he said felt like “a non-existent war.” Living conditions felt the same as they did decades earlier, only the makeshift shack where he stayed had air conditioning.

Since retiring this summer, Krueger is searching for another outlet to serve the public. In the meantime, the sunset of his career means more time for church and sports.

“I get to play a lot more golf,” he said. “I’m hunting for what I want to serve next. I’m pretty energetic.”

Honoring Our Own

The second annual "Honoring Our Own" event will pay tribute to Federal Way area veterans. The event runs 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, at Todd Beamer High School, 35999 16th Ave. S.

This year's event is dedicated to retired U.S. Army Col. Edwin Opstad, a longtime Federal Way resident who died in August 2011. His wife, Bette, will receive a token of appreciation from the Kiwanis and Historical Society.

Featured in the Nov. 12 program are:

• Keynote speaker Gene Krueger, whose 44-year military career includes piloting helicopter missions in Vietnam and Afghanistan war zones.

• A presentation of thank you letters to soldiers from Federal Way students

Elwin Hart, a retired U.S. Marine who wrote a military memoir titled "Did I Do Enough?"

• Federal Way dignitaries including Mayor Skip Priest

• Patriotic musical performances from Federal Way Chorale, Carol Stanley and Todd Beamer orchestra and wind ensemble

• The Air Force ROTC from Federal Way and Todd Beamer high schools will participate ceremonies involving the flag and POW-MIA veterans.

• Carlene Joseph of Support America’s Armed Forces

• Flags of Our Nation will be presented by Tom Leonard of VFW Post 2886.

• Boy Scouts Troop 342 from St. Vincent de Paul and Cub Scouts Pack 369 from Rainier View and Lakeland elementary schools

The event is sponsored by the Noon Kiwanis Club of Federal Way and the Historical Society of Federal Way. The society received a grant from the city to fund transportation for disabled veterans. To learn more, contact Diana Noble-Gulliford at (206) 412-5545. Village Green Retirement Campus, located at 1st Avenue South and South 356th Street, is offering parking and transportation to the event. Info: (253) 838-3700.

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