During the Vietnam War, while carrying out an assignment as a helicopter door-gunner and crew chief in the Navy's Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) 3 support of river patrol boats and Navy SEALs along the Mekong River, Anthony Guptaitis Jr. and his comrades came under heavy fire, a colleague said.
"The smoke was so thick you couldn't see your hand in front of your face," said Barry Solomon, a member of the same detail that day. "By the time the fighting was over, Tony's helicopter had taken some 200 bullets. It shouldn't have still been flying."
A highly decorated veteran of hundreds of combat missions, Mr. Guptaitis, 65, died Tuesday, May 27, in RML Specialty Hospital in Hinsdale after a bout with pneumonia. He was a resident of Glen Ellyn.
In 2002, after completing a two-year term as president of the Seawolf Association, founded in 1987 to foster the friendships begun in Vietnam, Mr. Guptaitis was inducted into its Enlisted Combat Aircrew Roll of Honor. The helicopter attack unit was nicknamed the Seawolves.
"We were a bunch of scraggly, long-haired kids, but we knew what we were doing," said Solomon, also a member of the Combat Aircrew Roll of Honor. "Tony was an exceptional gunner. I never saw him afraid. He never quit."
"When he got home, he opened up with other vets about his war experiences," said his wife, Kelly. "But after the war had ended, he put it behind him to get on with his life."
Born in Chicago, Mr. Guptaitis spent his early childhood in Fond du Lac, Wis. At age 7 he moved with his family to Glen Ellyn, where he graduated from Glenbard West High School in 1967.
A year later he enlisted in the Navy and attended a training camp in San Diego before beginning his tour. He was stationed for a year off a floating naval base on the Mekong River about 2 miles below the Cambodian border, just above an island with a fish sauce factory, where helicopters routinely came under fire during takeoffs and landings.
"He signed up knowing the dangers," his wife said. "But like so many others, he went to save the world from communism."
After returning from the war, Mr. Guptaitis attended the College of Du Page in Glen Ellyn, where his future wife was also a student. The couple married in 1976 and settled in Glen Ellyn.
"We met at a college hangout," his wife said. "Other than his beautiful blue eyes, all I remember is how upbeat he was."
In 1973, Mr. Guptaitis was hired by Spillman & Wotyla Insurance in Glen Ellyn, where, after receiving his license, he became a commercial insurance producer and later earned Certified Insurance Counselor and Certified WorkComp Advisor designations. He became the company's vice president in 1978 and president in 1993.
After Spillman & Wotyla merged with Esser Hayes Insurance Group in 2010, he became a partner in the firm.
Active in his community, Mr. Guptaitis was a Jaycee and served on the board of directors of the B.R. Ryall YMCA in Glen Ellyn. He served as president of the Glen Ellyn Chamber of Commerce and the Glen Ellyn Rotary. He was also a Cub Scout leader and soccer and baseball coach.
In 2012, Mr. Guptaitis suffered serious injuries in a fall at his home and was left with quadriplegia. He spent the past two years under constant care. His wife said he found solace and joy in the relationships with those he loved.
"Despite all he'd been through, he still looked forward to every tomorrow," she said.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Guptaitis is survived by a daughter, Adrienne, and a son, Anthony "A.J." III.
A celebration of his life is planned for a future date.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun