BRATTLEBORO >> For nearly five decades, Gene Capen, 70, of Brattleboro, lived with the pain of a wound he received while flying a helicopter in Vietnam.
"I kept the leg for a lot of years," said Capen, about his left leg, which was recently amputated at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in White River Junction. "I kept it longer than I should have."
After living with the pain for so many years, now Capen is learning to walk with a prosthesis.
"It's kind of frustrating," he said.
Capen graduated from Brattleboro Union High School in 1964 — "Best year ever that graduated out of that high school" — and a couple of years later enlisted in the U.S. Army, entering its warrant officer school to become a chopper pilot.
"When I got out of basic training I went to Fort Walters, Texas, and saw my first real helicopter. I thought to myself 'I'm never going to be able to fly one of those things.'"
But 11 months later, Capen was an aircraft commander, flying his Huey into combat with a wingman, a door gunner and a crew chief. "I was 22 when I flew my first mission."
During his first tour of duty in Vietnam, from 1968 to 1969, Capen was a member of the Razorbacks, a contact gun platoon, which flew combat missions, and it was during one of those flights that he received shrapnel in his left leg.
"I was in a cast," he said. "They wrapped me all up and said I would be all right in a couple of weeks. I didn't fly for about two weeks but then I took my cast off so I could fly."
On his second tour of duty, from 1971 to 1972, Capen flew the Huey on combat support missions, ferrying troops in and out of hot landing zones, medevacing wounded soldiers out and bringing in supplies.
"The Huey was the workhorse of the Army," he said.
After his 10 years of active duty, Capen spent 10 years in the reserve, flying Cobra attack helicopters. Up until about seven years ago, Capen flew choppers as a contractor, but the pain in his leg was getting to be too much to continue flying. "I didn't have the touch anymore for the pedals."
Capen said he enlisted because "I just wanted to give back to my country." But he wasn't prepared for the protests when he returned to the United States after his first tour. "I had just spent a year getting shot at and I came back to the most ungrateful people I have ever witnessed in my life. I was spit on, had stuff thrown at me and was called names."
Following his second tour of duty, said Capen, "I almost didn't want to come home and go through the same thing."
Despite the passing of the years, Capen said he will never forgive people for the way he and others were treated upon returning home.
In 1979, Capen moved to Brattleboro and raised two children, Cathy and Chris. Cathy lives in the Lebanon, N.H., area, from whom he has three grandchildren. Chris, who spent 22 years in the special forces, has two daughters.
Capen is packing up his things now, preparing for a move, with his new wife, Heather, to Colorado to be closer to one of his grandsons who is soon to be a father himself.
"Heather was my nurse. I liked the way she did my bandages."
Capen said he didn't have a lot of advice for young men and women and whether they should join the service. "That's their choice, but I think it would be a good thing to serve for two years. You don't have to carry a gun. You could do something to support the people in the field. The big part is, it teaches you how to be responsible; to take the high road and not the low road. You have to learn you don't start at the top. You've got to work for what you want."
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.