Published Friday, May 11, 2012
By ALEX MCRAE
“Hero” is a word young people hear a lot these days.
On Friday a group of Newnan High students got to meet one in person when Gary Wetzel, who earned the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam in 1968, came by for a visit. Wetzel was on hand to speak to classes studying World War II and the Vietnam War taught by Frank Henderson and Steve Quesinberry.
Wetzel actually denied being a hero, saying, “I’m not a hero. I’m not God. I don’t walk on water. I’m not any better than anybody else. I was just in a situation where something had to be done and I did it.”
Remarks like that make it clear that Wetzel has spent years mastering the art of understatement. His efforts in Vietnam were anything but business as usual. The proof is in the blue Medal of Honor ribbon he wears around his neck, a distinction he now shares with only 79 other Medal of Honor recipients now alive.
The bravery under fire that earned Wetzel the Medal of Honor came at a heavy price. During that day in January 1968 Wetzel fought all night and watched as his fellow soldiers fell around him, dead and wounded. He fought despite the fact that his arm was blown off in an explosion in the first minutes of fighting.
Wetzel is careful to say he didn’t “lose” his arm in Vietnam. “If I had lost it I’d still be over there looking for it,” he says with a smile. “I didn’t lose it. Somebody took it. I’m lucky to be alive. In fact I don’t know why I’m alive today. I guess it just wasn’t time to cash in my chips yet.”
Wetzel spoke at length about his service, his love of country and how he has dedicated much of his life since Vietnam to seeing that veterans —especially his fellow Vietnam vets — receive the care and benefits to which they are entitled.
Wetzel joined the Army shortly after leaving high school in Milwaukee. After serving one tour in Vietnam with an ordinance company, he re-enlisted for another tour of Vietnam with the promise of being attached to a helicopter unit, with hopes he might one day become a pilot.
He wound up as a door gunner. During his second tour in Vietnam, Wetzel was shot down four times and always returned to fly again. He was shot down for the fifth time just 12 days before the end of his second tour.
Wetzel describes what happened on his website, where he says, in part:
“On this particular day they were aware of some unfriendlies in a certain area. We were briefed on the LZ (landing zone). We had to prep it with 105’s, with jets and then — normally, when you come in on what they call a ‘hot LZ’ you had two sets of gun ships.
“On this particular day, of course, we were briefed before the operation, I knew where we were going and I looked and the air strike was on the other side of the river — so right away you figure that there’s been a mistake.
“When I looked back, the gun ships were about a quarter of a mile behind us — they’re supposed to be in front of us... at about tree-top level — that’s when all hell broke loose.
“We went in with 14 helicopters, 10 American and four Australian. Mine was the only one that got shot down on the LZ. We got hit in the left front of the helicopter with an RPG — what they call a Rocket Propelled Grenade.
“It blew the front of the ship apart and it came skidding to a halt. We had two guys that didn’t even leave the cabin, they got cross-fired so bad that they were killed right there.”
When Wetzel worked to get a badly wounded buddy out of the chopper, he suffered his first major wound, saying:
“I tried to pick him up and get him at least half way through the radio pedestal and that was when a homemade grenade went off behind me. When I say homemade grenade — anything you can put in an explosive device: nails, glass, and whatever — that’s what I got hit with. It landed about four feet behind me and caught me pretty good from my shoulders on down.
“It blew my whole upper arm out but from the elbow down there wasn’t a scratch ... it was just hanging on by some skin and bone and later on I took what was left [of my arm] and tucked it inside my pants and just kept on fighting.
“When you get in situations, you’d be surprised what the human body can take or will stand. Of course we have choices, but I figured at that time I was going to die and I figured I’d take a few more of the bad guys with me.”
During the firefight, Wetzel lost an arm, suffered spinal damage, was hit with a machine gun round and stabbed with a bayonet. He continued to fight back.
“I was the last person that guy ever stabbed with a bayonet,” he said.
For over 12 hours Wetzel held the enemy at bay with his heavy-caliber machine gun and dragged American survivors out of the jungle back to safety. He passed out several times from blood loss.
After a week-and-a-half of intensive care in Vietnam, Wetzel went to Tokyo for more extensive treatment before being shipped back to the States for months of surgery, recuperation and a new prosthetic arm. A few months after his last battle, Wetzel was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon Johnson.
Since he left the service Wetzel has worked to improve conditions for all veterans and is dedicated to finding and identifying remains of American soldiers still listed as missing or Prisoners of War. He said more than 2,600 are still listed as missing or POW from Vietnam, 8,000 from Korea and over 70,000 from World War II.
“We want accountability,” he says. “In this day and age you don’t just ‘misplace’ people.”
Wetzel spends most of his time working on veterans issues and said he was glad to visit Newnan High and enjoyed seeing the students and their interest in the Vietnam War.