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Medal of Honor Monday: Army Spc. 4th Class Gary Wetzel

Imagine losing your arm and suffering other severe injuries, yet still putting others' safety before your own. That's exactly what Army Spc. 4th Class Gary George Wetzel did during a firefight in Vietnam that took out his unit's helicopter. Wetzel miraculously survived the day, and his valor earned him the Medal of Honor.

A man in uniform poses for a photo.
Gary G. Wetzel
Army Spc. 4th Class Gary G. Wetzel, Medal of Honor recipient.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 240103-A-D0439-076

Wetzel was born on Sept. 29, 1947, in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was one of nine children; he had five sisters and was the oldest of four boys. His father was a factory worker who'd served in World War II, and his mother went to work as a part-time nursing assistant once the kids were old enough to take care of themselves.

As a boy, Wetzel enjoyed sports and Boy Scout outings, and he idolized John Wayne. But school wasn't really his thing, so in February 1966, a few months after he turned 18, he joined the Army.

After basic training, he served as a heavy equipment instructor at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. In a 2003 interview with the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, he said because he knew he would get sent to Vietnam eventually, he put in a request to deploy, but it was denied. Later, he put in another request that was accepted, and by October 1966, he found himself on his way to Vietnam.

Wetzel first served in an ordnance unit, but he wanted to do something with aviation, so while he was overseas, he reenlisted to get his choice of duty station. He was assigned to the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company of the 11th Combat Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Brigade. He got his first taste of combat experience in that unit and was shot down four times during his service.

It was the fifth time he got shot down — about 10 days before his second tour of duty would have concluded — that he earned the Medal of Honor.

A man in a flight suit poses for a photo with one hand in the air.
A young Army Pfc. Gary G. Wetzel poses for a photo on the tarmac while serving in Vietnam. Wetzel earned the Medal of Honor in 1968 for his actions in trying to save his fellow soldiers during a firefight in South Vietnam.
Photo By: Congressional Medal of Honor Society
VIRIN: 240103-O-D0439-065

On Jan. 8, 1968, then-Pfc. Wetzel's unit was doing flights to check for enemy activity near Ap Dong An in the southern end of Vietnam when they touched down in a landing zone that was immediately bombarded with enemy fire.

"The crossfire was tremendous," Wetzel, who was serving as his chopper's door gunner, later said.

Seconds after landing, a rocket hit the aircraft. As Wetzel and his crew chief, Bart Jarvis, tried to help their wounded aircraft commander, Tim Artman, two more enemy rockets exploded just inches from them. Those explosions blew Wetzel out of the helicopter and into a rice paddy.

Wetzel was critically wounded. He discovered his left arm was useless, and his right arm, chest and left leg were also bleeding profusely. However, he still managed to shoot down an enemy soldier who was about to throw a grenade.

Getting his bearings, Wetzel staggered back to his helicopter's gun well to return fire. According to his Medal of Honor citation, his machine gun was the only weapon effectively firing back at the enemy. Eventually, his shooting took out the automatic weapons emplacement that had pinned down and inflicted heavy casualties on U.S. troops.

Ten helicopters fly above a grassy field.
Operation Rang Dong
A column of UH-1D helicopters prepares to disembark members of Company C, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, 199th Light Infantry Brigade, for a combat assault during Operation Rang Dong, Nov. 21, 1967.
Photo By: Army/National Archives
VIRIN: 671121-A-D0439-021

Wetzel refused to attend to his extensive wounds and instead tried to drag himself back to Jarvis to help Artman; however, he passed out from blood loss. When he regained consciousness, he remained persistent in his effort to help his commander.

"I recall thinking even then how miraculous it was that the man was still alive," another soldier in Wetzel's helicopter said in a statement after the incident. "Pfc. Wetzel's actions, in my opinion, will stand out for years to come as a prime example of a truly selfless devotion to the survival of one's fellow man."

After an agonizing effort, Wetzel made it to Jarvis, who was still trying to drag the wounded Artman out of the rice paddy and to the safety of a nearby dike. Wetzel continued to assist him until he passed out again. Sadly, Artman didn't survive.

Wetzel said his crew fought for 10 to 12 hours before they got any help and were able to evacuate. He later said that he was determined to make it out of there because, even though he thought he was dying, he didn't want to do so in a rice paddy.

"Medically, I should have been dead," he said in his Library of Congress interview. Wetzel said he met some of the nurses who worked on him when the Vietnam Women's Memorial was erected in 1993. They told him he went through 18 units of blood during his immediate recovery.

Wetzel's arm had to be amputated at a field hospital. He was flown out of Vietnam and spent six months in hospitals before being discharged in June 1968.

Four men stand in a row, looking toward two other men who are looking face-to-face.
Medal of Honor
President Lyndon B. Johnson presents the Medal of Honor to Army Capt. Charles “Angelo” Liteky, Nov. 19, 1968. In line to also receive the honor are, from left to right: Spc. 4th Class Gary Wetzel, Spc. 5th Class Dwight H. Johnson, Sgt. 1st Class Sammy Lee Davis and Capt. James A. Taylor.
Photo By: White House
VIRIN: 681119-O-D0439-048

That September, shortly after he turned 21, Wetzel said his superiors mentioned that he'd be going on a trip, but they couldn't tell him where or why. He eventually learned it would be to Washington, D.C., to receive the Medal of Honor.

President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Wetzel with the medal during a White House ceremony on Nov. 19, 1968. Wetzel's father, fiancée and several other family members were able to attend. Four other men received the same honor that day.

Since that day, Wetzel has taken his role as a recipient of the nation's highest honor for valor very seriously.

"It's been four and a half decades, and every time I have the privilege of wearing that blue ribbon around my neck, I am in awe," Wetzel said in a 2016 USA Today article. "I try to live up to it for the guys who aren't here."

Wetzel left the service shortly after the medal ceremony. He went on to marry his fiancée, Kathy, and they had a son.

Wetzel took a job as a welder for a time before working for Ameriprise starting in 1971. He has stayed involved with veterans' organizations and has taken part in several iterations of the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride to D.C. over Memorial Day weekend. Wetzel often speaks to students about his time in the military and patriotism.

A seated man holds a photo frame while others standing around him applaud.
Gary Wetzel
Medal of Honor recipient and Vietnam veteran Gary Wetzel gets a standing ovation at VFW Post 305 in Eau Claire, Wis., after receiving a framed proclamation from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declaring March 29, 2018, as Vietnam Veterans Day in the state.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Katie Eggers, Wisconsin National Guard
VIRIN: 180329-Z-ON199-0130

The Medal of Honor recipient has received many accolades in recent years, too.

In 2015, the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center unveiled a street sign and stone marker commemorating Wetzel's heroics. He was also the 2015 Milwaukee County veteran of the year and the first recipient of the Milwaukee County Purple Heart Pass.

The Gary G. Wetzel Way nature trail at Camp American Legion, Wisconsin, was named for him in 2016. The camp helps post-9/11 veterans and their families rehabilitate and heal.

That same year, Wetzel was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash, but he recovered after extensive rehab. When he returned to his South Milwaukee home, it was to a parade-like atmosphere, with neighbors, family and well-wishers welcoming him back – a very different homecoming than what he got in 1968. Wetzel's home had been renovated by the Gary Sinise Foundation to accommodate his needs due to his extensive injuries.

Most recently, May 18, 2017, was declared Gary G. Wetzel Day in South Milwaukee.

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.

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