Gary Wetzel: Champion & Caretaker
September 24, 2018
Rank: Private First Class
Organization: U.S. Army
Company: 173rd Assault Helicopter Company
Conflict: Vietnam War
Date of Action: 1/8/1968
Date of Issue: 11/19/1968
Medal Presented By: President Lyndon B. Johnson
“Even though I’ve had the privilege to put that blue ribbon around my neck…I not only wear it for me, I wear it for everybody else and consider myself more or less a caretaker.” – Specialist Four Gary Wetzel
As a Private First Class with the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company in the Vietnam War, Specialist Four Gary Wetzel served as a door gunner aboard a helicopter which was trapped in a landing zone engulfed by hostile fire. During the attack, an explosion left Wetzel with critical injuries to his chest, left leg and both arms – his left arm was later amputated due to the wound’s severity. Despite his injuries, Wetzel’s commitment to his brothers in arms led him back to his original position where he fired upon the enemy and until the threat was over. Wetzel then courageously made his way back to his aircraft and assisted his crew chief in getting the commander to safety.
In 2013, Gary Wetzel and his wife, Kathy, came across a story of a 4-year-old girl, Bella Zizzo, in southeast Wisconsin, who was born with a limb difference. Visiting a garden shop with her Mom, Bella Zizzo asked what the seeds they were buying were for. Her mom responded that they were going to grow flowers. In response, Bella Zizzo asked if they could also get some seeds to grow fingers for her hand. Zizzo’s parents decided to raise money to take her to Camp No Limits in Florida, where she could meet other children with similar challenges. After hearing Zizzo’s story, Wetzel reached out to the family. An immediate and unlikely friendship formed between girly, spunky Zizzo and tough motorcyclist Wetzel.
In October 2013, Wetzel’s devotion to community and commitment to helping Zizzo drove him to organize the “Ride for Bella,” an event to raise money for the girl’s Camp No Limits Fund. A total of 63 bikers participated, and the event raised funds to cover both the camp and a post-camp surprise trip to Disney World. When the family returned from Florida, Zizzo couldn’t wait to tell Wetzel about her trip.
“To have somebody reach out because they’re touched by your 4-year-old, it’s incredible. It just goes to show you that there are good people out there,” said Zizzo’s mother. “It’s huge to have him look at our family and say, ‘We want to do anything we can.'”
Specialist Four Gary Wetzel often speaks to school groups about military history and patriotism as he continues to embody the spirit of the Medal of Honor and its values.
Gary Wetzel is one of the 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients whose combat valor and civic heroics will be enshrined in the National Medal of Honor Museum at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, SC. These heroes deserve a home for their legacy to be shared with the next generations.
As the only military museum to recognize all branches of the armed services, it will highlight the fact that the recipients of our nation’s highest military award not only defended our country, they were instrumental in developing, designing, and enriching it.
The museum will be a vault for the values embodied in the medal: courage, sacrifice and patriotism. It will showcase the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation Character Development Program, including living histories of over 100 recipients. It will also house the Citizens Heroes Program honoring ordinary citizens who have epitomized the concept of “service above self”.
Americans will walk out of that museum with the conviction that they too can be a hero, inspired by the values of courage and sacrifice that the Medal of Honor recipients used to excel in combat and in civilian life. Learn more at mohmuseum.org.