GALWAY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Two local Vietnam War veterans discovered a unique connection 50 years after their service.
The leaves were just past their peak in Galway. The property’s entrance is marked with an American flag, and the farm is sprinkled with grazing horses. It’s a fittingly peaceful location for Alliance 180, a non-profit that aims to prevent suicide for veterans with peer-to-peer support.
“Psychologists think they can put their mindset into that of a veteran and communicate. They can’t. Veterans speak their own language,” Dr. Gus Kappler, Vietnam War Veteran, said.
Kappler was drafted into the Army in 1970 and 1971. He served as a trauma surgeon in Phu Bai, Vietnam, in the 85th Evacuation Hospital Unit. He spent countless hours saving limbs and repairing blood vessels. Kappler explained that “compartmentalizing” was a job requirement.
“If you get upset about one patient or a bad outcome or a patient dying or bleeding out, and if it begins to control your emotions, you won’t be very effective at your next operation,” Kappler said.
After the Army, Kappler spent most of his career as a surgeon with a practice in Amsterdam until his retirement in 2000. Forty-five years after the war, he detailed his memories in a book, Welcome Home From Vietnam, Finally: A Vietnam Trauma Surgeon’s Memoir.
“Any veteran remembers just about every day of his service, one way or the other,” Kappler said.
The book is a raw account of his experience as a young doctor surrounded by traumatic injuries from the combat zone. In one section, he explained how the hospital staff depended on medivac pilots to deliver the wounded from the field.
“They were daredevils,” Kappler said. “They are a little bit crazy. I mean, you knew you were going to get shot at.”
However, for fellow Vietnam War Veteran Bob Nevins, that career was his life’s dream.
“The Army was offering helicopter pilots training. So, I said, well, if I survive Vietnam, that would be a pretty good deal,” Nevins said.
About eight years ago, Nevins was invited to a speaking engagement at Woolfert’s Roost Country Club in Albany. Kappler was hired to speak at the same event.
“I picked up the book and started reading the jacket and said oh my god, this guy was in Vietnam the same time I was. This guy was a trauma surgeon at the 85th Avac. Oh my god, this is the hospital we flew into,” Nevins said.
It turns out Nevins had delivered the wounded directly to Kappler. They never knew each other’s names. Nevins was just a stranger on the helipad, but the moment of kismet for these two Vets meant a bond over the same memories no one else could understand.
Since the day they met in Albany, Kappler and Nevins have supported each other’s endeavors as Veteran advocates. They’ve also connected over shared stories, including a devastating mission on Christmas Eve. Nevins’ helicopter was first the one on the scene.
“I reached out, grabbed the basket to stabilize, and looked into the kid in the basket,” Nevins said. “I’m used to seeing this stuff all the time, but he had a wedding ring on. He couldn’t have been more than 21 years old. Christmas Eve, are you kidding me? Someone is going to tell his wife, his mother tomorrow that this is what’s happened.”
The Army reported nine died, and three others succumbed to their injuries that night.
“Hearing those voices in the middle of the night, that stuck with me my whole life.”
In his years after service, Nevins was a commercial airline pilot. Throughout his life, though, he searched for answers on life after trauma and why so many veterans are dying by suicide.
“What you start doing is disconnecting emotionally and physically from people. And you start self-medicating, Nevins said. “You do all these things; all these symptoms are related to this circuit breaker.”
Nevins created a unique three-day program backed by science that utilizes horses and aims to reset the nervous system. Through his non-profit Alliance 180, Nevins has helped hundreds of veterans at no cost to them, including Gus.
“It never gets old when you see the lights come on emotionally for somebody, and they can get on with their life,” Nevins said.
“The dying kids, the people bleeding out on Christmas Eve. Yeah, we ignored it, but it went into our subconscious, and it ate away in ways that maybe we didn’t realize, and it’s good to get it out,” Kappler said.
Kappler also does his part by hosting fireside chats for Veterans on his property in Amsterdam.
“You’re taught not to show weakness. And you self-stigmatize. And you’re embarrassed. And you feel like you’re unequally contaminated by your experience,” Kappler said.
Kappler told News10’s Stephanie Rivas that he’s angry the government doesn’t require a transition program out of the military, like a boot camp for getting back to civilian life.
Till that dream comes to fruition, Kappler and Nevins are determined to continue their work helping other veterans.
“Gus and I sort of silently appreciate what we’ve been through but you and I know what happened and I think that’s the bond of the military,” Nevins said.