On this day in 1947, a hero is born. Gary Wetzel would join the United States Army soon after his 18th birthday. Was he an unlikely hero? He’d then been in the habit of skipping school a lot. He joined the Army because it was “either . . . get a job or join the service, so I chose to join the service.”
Either way, the Army was blessed to have Wetzel.
The young soldier went to Vietnam, where he was assigned to an ordnance outfit. But Wetzel wanted something more. He wanted to be a gunner on a helicopter. He soon discovered that the best way to get there was to volunteer for a second tour of duty. He was only ten days away from finishing that second tour when disaster struck.
On January 8, 1968, Wetzel’s helicopter was flying an Eagle Flight when it was shot down. Two men aboard were immediately killed by enemy fire. Wetzel himself was soon struck by a grenade and thrown into a rice paddy.
His left arm was badly wounded. Yet Wetzel was in no mood to be stopped. “I got a little bit more zip left in me,” he later joked of that time.
“Although bleeding profusely due to the loss of his left arm and severe wounds in his right arm, chest, and left leg,” Wetzel’s citation says, “Sp4c. Wetzel staggered back to his original position in his gun-well and took the enemy forces under fire. His machinegun was the only weapon placing effective fire on the enemy at that time.”
Wetzel described the scene a bit more colorfully: There were so many explosions around him that it was “like the July 4th but it’s on the ground.”
He’d tucked his useless left hand inside his belt so it wouldn’t flap around. “I figured this is my last hoorah,” he later said. Wetzel was lapsing in and out of consciousness at times, but he stayed in his position until he had eliminated the automatic weapons emplacement opposing the American forces—and he soon returned to the aid of his aircraft commander.
Wetzel and his crew chief managed to drag the pilot to safety. Then they retrieved other wounded men, too—even though Wetzel was still occasionally losing consciousness. The men were finally evacuated the next morning. Wetzel would lose his left arm, but he mostly wondered why he’d survived at all.
“[M]edically,” he told an interviewer, “I should have been dead . . . . when I was on the operating table they—my heart stopped and they brought me back. So I guess . . . the big guy was looking down and says let’s keep the redhead alive.”
He’d saved several men, and they would come to him in the hospital, “whip out their wallet and show me a picture of the wife or the kids or the girlfriend and say hey man, because of you this is what I got to go back to.” But Wetzel himself was much more humble about it all. “I’m not Superman,” he concluded. “I was just a guy doing his job.”
Wetzel received the Medal of Honor in November 1968. An interviewer later asked him how the Medal had fit into his life. The first thing Wetzel thought of was the flag.
“You know,” he concluded, “we tend to look at the red, white and blue and—oh, there’s a flag. But I see into the flag. I see beyond the flag. I see before what they—the people did, men and women for us to be here right now. . . . I’m flattered that, that I had that privilege. But it’s, it’s a part of everybody.”
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Interview with Gary George Wetzel (Veterans' History Project)
Medal of Honor citation (Gary Wetzel; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral history (Gary Wetzel; Vietnam)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)