Lieutenant Louis Caputo confesses that it’s been a long time since he’s flipped through his old Vietnam photo albums. The pictures have started to turn yellow around the edges and he has to pry the plastic page coverings apart before he can turn from one collection of memories to the next.
“This is one of my favorites,” Caputo announces as he tries to remove a photograph of a young, dark-haired version of himself standing next to a black Labrador retriever.
“That’s Bruce,” he says pointing towards the dog. “There were five different occasions when he saved my life.”
Prior to taking an oath to serve and protect the people of Monroe County, and long before he began volunteering each year to play the role of Grinch for Toys for Keys Kids, Caputo risked his life to play the role of dog handler for the United States Army.
For two tours of duty, with Bruce at his side, Caputo took on the courageous task of tracking and defeating enemy soldiers in Vietnam. Rarely did the duo fail to complete a mission.
“When I got to Vietnam they asked some of us if we wanted to become dog handlers,” Caputo tells. “I raised my hand. That’s not what I had trained for, but within two weeks of getting there that was my job.”
For multiple days at a time, and accompanied by only a small band of three or four lightly-armed unit soldiers, Caputo and Bruce would head deep into enemy territory in search of Viet Cong or North Vietnamese troops. Bruce tracked the opposition by ground scent, and Caputo searched for visual signs that the enemy was near. Wherever Bruce went, Caputo and the men followed.
“He was highly intelligent and well trained,” Caputo recalls of Bruce – who was trained as a tracking dog in Malaysia by the British before being sent to Vietnam. “He was a tracking machine. He was one of the best dogs we (the United States Military) had.”
Caputo followed Bruce through dense vegetation and into the terrifying darkness of underground tunnels. If Caputo missed one of Bruce’s signals, the unit would be on top of the enemy before they knew it.
“He’d do something as little as raise his ears,” he says. “That’s how we knew they were close.”
Caputo vividly remembers all the times his four-legged comrade and companion saved his life. On one occasion his team was hot on the enemy’s trail when Bruce suddenly stopped in his tracks. Caputo urged the dog on but Bruce refused to go any further.
“Come on boy, let’s go,” he pleaded, but the Labrador stood his ground. “Let’s go, come on,” he said again, but still the dog refused to budge.
Then Caputo looked ahead and noticed a trip wire directly in the unit’s path. It was attached to a detonator lined with C4 explosives. The men had only been a few steps away from triggering it.
“I’d be dead if it wasn’t for him,” Caputo says. “He wasn’t even trained to look for explosives. After that, whenever he stopped I knew something was up.”
Caputo joined the United States Army in 1969 before the inception of the Vietnam draft. He was 19-years-old when he enlisted, and says that he volunteered because he wanted to serve his country- and because it was the John Wayne Era, and “the American thing to do.”
He also acknowledges that his family’s long history of military service played an important role in his decision to join.
“Every (male) member of my family has been in the military,” Caputo tells. “My father died in Korea. My grandfather was wounded in France. My family and my wife’s family were very patriotic.”
Caputo served in Vietnam until 1971 when he returned to his home in Key Largo. He’d lived there since the age of 16, when his mother moved the family down from Miami.
“She loved to fish here,” Caputo shares, “she moved down so she wouldn’t have to make the drive to go fishing anymore.”
Like many Veterans of the Vietnam War, who returned to anything but a hero’s welcome, Caputo had trouble finding work back home.
“No one would hire me before I left because they thought I would eventually get drafted,” he recalls. “Then no one would hire me when I returned because I didn’t have any work experience.”
Eventually Caputo learned the electrical trade and opened his own contractor business. In 1984 he again volunteered for service – this time as a reserve deputy for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. A few years later, when his boys were old enough to run the family business on their own, he attended the police academy and became a full-time officer. He now holds the rank of Lieutenant.
It’s been 37 years since Caputo completed his service in Vietnam, yet he says that he’ll still gladly share his experiences with anyone who asks. He retells the memories as if they took place yesterday, even drawing maps on post-it-notes to help illustrate his stories.
He’s not afraid to talk about seeing death or about losing friends on the battle field. And he’ll openly acknowledge that he knows he’s lucky to be alive.
“I don’t have bad days,” he says, “I have only good days. I have good health, a good wife, good kids, and a good job. A lot of people never got that opportunity.”
Caputo is also more than happy to talk about his old friend and comrade Bruce, who along with 4,000 other U.S. war dogs helped to save the lives of an estimated 10,000 American soldiers.
Bruce never returned from Vietnam, Caputo will tell you. He was viewed as a piece of equipment and left behind to be euthanized or to meet an unknown fate.
Caputo will say that Bruce is a hero, and ask that while you honor the men and women, both past and present, of our Armed Forces, that you also honor Bruce and the war dogs that gave their lives in battle.
“I owe my life to that dog,” Caputo says.
Caputo may also talk about the awards and the medals he won for bravery and valor- although if only for a brief moment. He’d much rather discuss his volunteer efforts in the community, or the work he does with the Rotary Club and Leadership Monroe County.
He’ll even gladly show you the photograph on his office wall of him and his daughter after they peddled 406 miles in five days to raise money for AIDS vaccines.
“It’s not about the (Vietnam) stories,” he says. “It’s about helping people in the community.”
Before leaving his office that morning, and before heading out to volunteer for some last-second campaigning for a friend and colleague running for Monroe County Sheriff, Lieutenant Louis Caputo asks a deep-seated question.
“What is courage?” he inquires, taking a few seconds to think about the answer.
“Courage,” he says. “Is standing up to fight when the bullets start flying. You just don’t know how you’re going to react until you’re in that situation.”
On this Veteran’s Day, as we honor our Veterans and our Active Soldiers, take a few moments to think about the meaning of the word courage, and about how much courage it takes to risk one’s life for one’s country.
On the pages of old Vietnam photo albums, and seated behind a desk in the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department in Marathon, are some good examples of what the word courage means.
Courage, you will find, is the young man in the timeworn photographs, and the dog by his side. Courage, is the same man, now older and in a uniform of a different color, but with the same dedication and loyalty to serve and protect the people of this country. Courage is the devoted husband, loving father, and active member of the community. Courage is the man who is not afraid to dress up as the Grinch.