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Milaca vet at right time, right place


    There are not many of us who can claim having a hands-on role in the recovery of the astronauts from the famed Apollo 13, a moon mission that failed in an attempt to be the third manned landing. You might recall that same mission was the one that led to the movie and the famous line, “Houston, we have a problem.” Walter “Walt” Capps, 74, of Milaca was in a fortunate position to be aboard the recovery ship and, in his role as a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman, he was involved in the preliminary exams of the three astronauts. But like most good stories, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Looking back, if his first choice of an occupation came to be, chances are he wouldn’t have been serving his country in the Pacific Ocean at that stage of his life. A love for horses and cattle, and a desire to become a veterinarian, was his first love. A native of Gillette, Wyo., and a graduate of Campbell County High School in 1955, Capps had plans to go to college to pursue his dream. Entering college at the University of Wyoming for one year on a scholarship, a lack of funds, and inability to find a job, proved to be the beginning of a historic service career. Walt joined the Navy in the fall of 1957, with the idea of turning his love for horses and cattle into taking care of the medical needs of humans, wanting to work as a hospital corpsman. Those plans didn’t quite work out as planned, as he was stuck in the deck force aboard the USS Pickaway, an amphibious assault ship where he served as a coxswain. That duty involved steering of the boat, among other duties. His duty assignment was for approximately 18 months; however, he spent six months in a naval hospital after having surgery on his left shoulder. It was then on to the USS Bayfield  where he spent another year of duty. At this point, he decided it was time to steer his own destiny and opted to re-enlist in the Navy, with a guarantee of being sent to hospital corpsmen school. Finally, in 1960 his path to becoming involved in the field of medicine came to be. “My love for horses and cattle came into play,” acknowledged Walt. After completing his corpsmen school at the Great Lakes facility near Chicago, Ill., it was time to venture out into the fleet. His first duty ship proved to be aboard a Landing Ship Tanks (LST), followed by being assigned to serve next on a ship classified as Landing Ship Dock (LSD). Walt recalled during this duty period his ship transported Malaysian troops to the Belgian Congo. Fast forward to 1969 and now aboard the USS Iwo Jima (LPH2), a helicopter carrier, which would serve as his new home. This ship, the size of two football fields in length, found him working alongside 25 Navy corpsmen, along with more than 1,200 U.S. Marines on board. Stationed in the bay area of DaNang Harbor, his ship served as a unit to shuttle Marines into battle during the Vietnam war. His duty, not very pretty at times, dealt with taking care of the lives of those servicemen. He recalled seeing the USS New Jersey, a battleship that was put back in action, delivering huge shells into enemy territory. While his first 13 years in the service had taken Walt to many locations and provided him with many thrills and reality situations, he had only just begun. In mid-April of 1970, the USS Iwo Jima received the call to position itself in the Pacific Ocean, to be part of an historic event that was about to unfold. That call put Walt and his shipmates in place to serve as the recovery ship for the famed Apollo 13 mission. Somewhere near the island of Pago Pago, along with an escort of U.S. Navy destroyers, the ship Walt was aboard sent out a helicopter and crew to retrieve the capsule. That capsule was lifted out of the ocean and placed aboard the ship, with American astronauts Commander Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert back safely after spending three days in space. Having launched on April 11, the attempt to become the third manned moon landing fell short after an on-board mechanical failure. The story of that mission went on to become a movie, leading to the famous line Tom Hanks spoke, “Houston, we have a problem.” For Walt, being on board and in position as a chief corpsman at that stage of his career, taking part in the preliminary exams of these American heroes was a “major highlight.” But wait, there are more highlights to come. Leaving the water for a period of time, his next duty assignment took Walt to New Orleans, La., where he would work for the Fleet Introduction Team (FIT) at Avondale Ship Yards. There his duty as a chief corpsmen lasted some four years (1971-1974), as he was involved as a Navy inspector, making sure the sick bay areas aboard new vessels were properly installed and stocked. But, like all good things in the Navy, it was time to fill the seabag and deploy to yet another duty station. Those orders would send Walt to a new experience, being stationed at the U.S. Naval Hospital located in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There he would be dealing with medical responsibilities for American dependents, along with Navy and Marine personnel. Come 1978, and with retirement calling, his next duty assignment took him a little further north as he was assigned to the naval hospital facility at the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut. He served there until shifting one last time to Bethesda Naval Hospital–a major medical facility in Washington DC, a place where the top admirals and generals were tended to, along with members of Congress. Not a bad place for his final duty, as in 1984, following 27 years of commendable service, it was time to retire as a master chief. Having traveled from east to west and around the world, Walt told us he had no regrets, but he would have liked to have spent time in Europe. “I think I made a wise choice in joining the Navy, more so now, from a retirement perspective,” said Walt. Following his military career, it was time to decide where Walt, along with his wife, Patricia, and three children, would call home. With his folks having passed on, the choice was to move to Garrison, located north of Milaca, where Patricia’s parents owned a resort. Walt remained behind to finish out his Navy career, while the family packed up and made the move to Minnesota. Retirement would only lead to more work, as at first Walt was called upon to help out with chores around the resort. It was back in 1985 when Walt and family decided to make a move to Milaca. For the next 20 years Walt was employed by Fleet Farm in Waite Park, working as a security guard, along with areas of responsibility in other departments. Walt’s medical skills proved to come in handy on the home front as he saw to the needs of his wife and took care of her for some 15 years, before Patricia passed on in 2008. For Walt, taking care of the needs at home was important. You see, this service thing goes back a long way. Walt’s father, Walter LeRoy, served in the U.S. Navy in World War II as a gunners mate, leaving the service after giving seven years of duty to his country. During that period of time the elder family member was involved in the Battle of the Midway, in a way kind of setting the stage for his son. It also began a line of service that continues yet today for the Capps family. Walter Fredrick Jr. is retired from serving as a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard as a search and rescue pilot. Walt’s son, who now resides in Utah and works as a safety manager, worked his way up through the ranks, to earn his higher grade. This was another one of those highlights in Walt’s lifetime, as he was on hand to pin the advancement bars on his namesake. His other son, Michael, is now in Atlanta, Ga., after serving in the U.S. Navy as a senior chief diver, and was involved in demolition work.Today Michael is involved with work at a hospital, using his service experience in the field of decompression. His call to duty saw him involved in the first Gulf war. We can’t forget about their sister and Walt’s daughter, Brenda Marie, who now makes her home in Houston, where there’s no problems to report. She works as an attorney, getting back to that service thing once again. Walt is trimming up these days, with hopes of wearing his old Navy uniform one more time. That would be another proud moment to be on hand for the pinning of officer bars on his grandson. Michael’s son Kyle is in his final year at the, you guessed it, U.S. Naval Academy. It’s just a matter of time before that mission is accomplished. Much like the Apollo 13 mission, Walt had to think fast and switch gears from his dream of becoming a veterinarian. His next choice of service to mankind proved to be one with a number of interesting stops along the way, while providing a service to those in need. One would have to say he made a safe landing. Today he continues to serve as the service officer, and as a trustee of the Milaca Hakes-Seimers VFW Post 10794. He is also a lifetime member of the Fleet Reserve Association. While being far removed from his active days, Walt is the kind of individual who will always answer the call.

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