Gary Wetzel: The MoH Recipient Who Rescued His Commander, Despite Losing His Arm to Enemy Action

Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

Medal of Honor recipients are built differently than your average soldier, and there’s no one who proves this more than Sp4c. Gary Wetzel. The Vietnam War veteran had his arm blown off during an enemy ambush. Despite a near-fatal loss of blood, he continued to man his position, and even went above and beyond to rescue his injured air commander.

Gary Wetzel enlists in the US Army

Military portrait of Gary Wetzel
Gary Wetzel. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Gary Wetzel was born on September 29, 1947 in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One of nine children, he spent his childhood in the Boy Scouts and playing baseball and football. His idol at the time was actor John Wayne, whom he looked up to not only because he represented all things American, but because he had respect for others.

Depending on the source, Wetzel either enlisted in the US Army in 1965 or ’66. While speaking with the Library of Congress, he revealed his reason for becoming a soldier, saying it was “either […] get a job or join the service, so I chose to join the service.”

After 12 weeks of boot camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Wetzel was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where he served as a heavy equipment instructor. However, he wanted to see combat and thrice requested a deployment to Vietnam. The first two requests were denied because there was no one to replace him at Fort Leonard Wood. He struck gold the third time and, before he knew it, was on a transport aircraft to Asia.

Arriving in Vietnam on October 18, 1966, Wetzel was assigned to an ordnance unit, tasked with delivering ammunition to bases across the the southern part of the country. Again, he wanted more, and thus volunteered for a second tour of duty, this time as a door gunner with an aviation brigade.

On the day of his Medal of Honor actions, he was serving as a member of the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company, 11th Combat Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Brigade.

Continuing to fight, despite suffer severe injuries

Lyndon B. Johnson standing with Gary Wetzel, Sammy L. Davis, Dwight H. Johnson, Angelo Liteky and James Allen Taylor
US President Lyndon B. Johnson presenting the Medal of Honor to Angelo Liteky, James Allen Taylor, Sammy L. Davis, Dwight H. Johnson and Gary Wetzel, November 1968. (Photo Credit: White House Photograph Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

On January 8, 1968, Gary Wetzel and his team were flying near Ap Dong An, South Vietnam as part of an insertion force. Enemy fire hit the helicopter, bringing it down in a landing zone and trapping everyone in a closed-in area. Two crewmen were killed by Viet Cong‘s fire, while Wetzel’s air commander was wounded.

While coming to the aid of his superior, Wetzel was critically wounded by two enemy rockets, which exploded and launched him into a nearby rice paddy. The detonation severely wounded the private first class, whose left arm was nearly completely torn off. His right arm, chest and left leg were also injured.

Despite losing a lot of blood, Wetzel tucked his left arm into his belt and made his way to the helicopter’s gun-well. He manned the position while enemy fire continued to fly, as the machine gun was the only weapon effectively fighting back against the Viet Cong. In excruciating pain, Wetzel managed to take out the automatic weapons emplacement that was firing at his comrades.

With the enemy fire subdued, Wetzel returned to his original mission: attending to his air commander. Refusing to tend to his own wounds, he made his way to the injured man, passing out in the process. After regaining consciousness, he dragged himself to the location, where he, drifting in and out of consciousness, and the crew chief dragged the commander into a nearby dike, to ensure he had adequate cover, should a second ambush occur.

The pair continued to rescue the wounded, despite Wetzel still losing blood and consciousness. It wasn’t until the next morning that the survivors were rescued. Wetzel had to have his left arm amputated and spent the next six months in hospital. Speaking about his injuries, he later said, “Medically, I should have been dead […] When I was on the operating table they  – my heart stopped and they brought me back.”

Wetzel was promoted to specialist four for his actions. Additionally, on November 19, 1968, he was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson, during a ceremony held at the White House. He was also awarded the Purple Heart and an Air Medal for his service.

Gary Wetzel’s work with veterans

Gary Wetzel and Hershel Williams signing books at a table
Medal of Honor recipients Gary Wetzel and Hershel Williams signing autographs following the opening ceremony for the Medal of Honor Society Convention, September 2009. (Photo Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Gary Wetzel currently resides in his hometown and works as a heavy equipment operator. Speaking with the Chicago Tribune, he shared that his arm is a constant reminder of the war and what he endured. “I never ever have a day where I don’t think about the war,” he said. “When I go to bed at night, I take the war off. And when I get up the next day, I put the war back on.”

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Wetzel has since dedicated his life to working for and with his fellow veterans. In 1984, he founded the Wisconsin Vietnam Vets, Chapter 1. He is also the founder of the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Stand Down, which provides veterans with the resources needed to help then reintegrate back into society.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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