By Jen Bakken
DELANO, MN Ted Wetzel is a man who lives by simple means, not out of necessity, but because it’s the way he chooses to live.
While not living frivolously, he recycles everything he can. To him, driving his 1983 pickup is a luxury, because although it is a little beat up, it is still dependable.
For the past 35 years, he has lived in his modest Delano home, where one can immediately see Wetzel’s desire to save and reuse everything.
From his clothing to his refusal to let any food go to waste, it’s obvious he just doesn’t need or want anything more.
“I’ve got money for better stuff, but I don’t want it,” Wetzel said. “I have to be this way in order for me to live. I don’t live high on the hog, to make up for what I’ve seen.”
Exactly what Wetzel has seen is sometimes difficult for him to talk about and he can easily become overwrought with emotion.
After growing up on a Carver County farm, he enlisted in the Army, and in 1967, he left for Vietnam with a copy of the New Testament slipped into his pocket.
Little did Wetzel know, as a young man who felt he was invincible, that his experiences in Vietnam would affect him, and everything he did, for the rest of his life.
Memories of his time in the service are many; some vivid and some sketchy, but they are there every day.
Initially, he was a motor pool mechanic with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. He remembers volunteers being needed for Operation Junction City to drive supply convoys to batteries in the field. Because he was considered the new guy, he was volunteered when no one else offered.
“They gave us instructions on how to destroy our trucks if we were going to be overrun, how to conduct ourselves if we were captured,” he said, “and how to try to escape and kill our captors, while getting as much information as we could if we escaped.”
Eyes were always kept open and watchful for Punji Pits (a hole in the ground filled with sharpened bamboo sticks), land mines, and piano wires (fine wires placed by the Viet Cong, pulled tight across the road at neck level, and intended to cut off the head of an officer or his driver).
“I turned 20 years old sometime during my move from Tay Ninh to Chu Lai,” he said. “I made 20 and hoped to make it to 21, or at least long enough to do some good for these people.”
While many back in the United States were protesting the Vietnam War, Wetzel believed people at home weren’t shown the whole picture or even close to what was really happening.
He hoped to last long enough to do his part to push the Communists out and give the Vietnamese the freedoms taken for granted by Americans back home.
Helping with cooking, garbage detail, mechanic work, latrine detail, and hauling water were assignments he shared with fellow soldiers.
At times, heat and boredom could get the best of them, and something could easily happen to cause immediate chaos and leave them wishing for a moment of relaxation.
Sometimes, during the day, the Viet Cong would shoot off a few rounds from the top of a hill. The soldiers would all jump behind something, grab their M-16s and helmets, and hit the perimeter.
During the night, in each bunker, two guys would sleep while one stayed awake. Dealing with mosquitos twice the size of those in Minnesota, as well as centipedes, made sleeping no easy task. They quickly learned what noises in the dark to be worried about.
“Thinking about being hit was always on our minds,” he said.
In a place where the ground was red dirt, and made very slick by rain, many tanks slid off the road. Once, a captain told Wetzel he was needed in a hurry a B battery truck had hit a mine and two were killed.
With his M-16, flak jacket, and helmet, Wetzel went to find a way to get the truck out of there. While he crawled under it to search for a solid place to hook up to, he reached up for something to hold onto and felt a liquid running down his hand and arm.
It was blood from above where the two killed soldiers were sitting. He remembers washing his hands several times, and once home from Vietnam, waking up many nights soaked from sweating. He could actually feel the blood running down his arm, just as it had that day.
“I guess it’s rather selfish to think about how that day affected me,” he said, “when two that I knew of and a lot more died. I lived long enough to come home, something they never had the chance to do.”
When there wasn’t use for the wrecker, Wetzel did mechanic work, as he was originally sent there to do.
While fixing a tire on the wrecker, by patching the tube, he noticed the lock ring was bent a bit, but thought, with air pressure against it, things would be alright.
As he filled the tire with air, he sat on it, mostly with his left side. A few seconds later the lock ring came off and sent him flying about 20 feet in the air.
Landing in a big cloud of dust, his head just missed the edge of a steel step. To this day, his hip bothers him and for more than a year, he has needed to use a cane.
“It’s nothing I can’t live with,” he said. “A lot of guys left there a lot worse off than me.”
Many times while traveling down a road in Vietnam, there were Vietnamese people riding bicycles who tried to force the soldiers to steer over a mine in the road.
Since Wetzel had grown up in a small town, he was accustom to knowing, by first name, many who traveled the country roads.
“Over there, it was kill or be killed,” he said. “We had no idea who was on our side and who wasn’t.”
The roads in Vietnam held many dangers for soldiers. Some mines were buried in the corners of roads. To this day, Wetzel doesn’t drive on a curve or corner the same way.
Of all his memories during his time in Vietnam, he feels one, in particular, affected him more deeply.
Nearly every trip he made with the wrecker, there was a boy who would stand on the side of the road. Wetzel can still picture the young boy’s face, and guesses he was around 5 years old.
The boy would stand next to the side of a house (or hootch), jump up and down, wave his hands, and yell, “GI number one! GI number one!“
Wetzel decided to bring some extra meals to the boy on his way past. As he slowed down, two or three people with AK47s opened fire on him. Wetzel immediately dropped down and sped away.
He cannot remember why he was going past the boy that day, but on his way back to his base, he was by himself, speeding, locked and loaded, ready to shoot.
With his gun out the window, he noticed the boy, and before he could pull back the weapon, the little boy saw it.
“The kid thought I was going to shoot him,” he recalled, full of emotion. “The poor kid, probably forced to be a decoy, dropped his arms and the look in his eyes was as if he were thinking, ‘thank God it’s finally over. He was probably sick of being scared and not understanding. I never told anyone about this for fear that the hootch, the family, and the boy would be wiped off the map.”
Occasionally, he would see the boy and toss chocolates out the window as he sped by, and the starving boy would quickly eat them as Wetzel watched from the rear view mirror.
He was never shot at again while passing this hootch, and images of the boy are fresh in his mind, as though it happened yesterday.
Because of witnessing those living with so little, Wetzel cannot, to this day, live with much.
“I keep what most people would pitch I have to,” he said.
While he doesn’t remember much about his flight home, he does remember trying to go back, to life as usual on his parents’ farm.
One day while in the hayloft in the barn, he felt like he was being watched. Though he knew he was safe, he felt as though there was a sniper ready to fire at him. This was the first of many similarly frightening experiences for him.
In his Delano home, he has a room with a desk placed in a corner, far from the windows he covered. For him, it’s a place to be alone and feel safe.
It was difficult for Wetzel to hear Americans protesting the war, and feeling as though he should be ashamed he was there.
“Some friends of mine who were there feel that coming home was worse than being there,” he said. “And, I agree, to a point. It was good to be back home, I guess. We expected the attitude of the country to be different than we found it.”
He is thankful for his wife, Linda Wetzel, who has remained supportive of him all these years. They raised one daughter, Jenny Cassell, and have two grandsons, Jacob and Caleb.
Though Wetzel, now retired, was able to work as a semi truck driver for 25 years, then drove a dump truck seasonally for Sunny Litfin and Don Arens, and go about a typical life, his experiences in Vietnam have always been with him.
Along with his hip injury, he also suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, and attends a therapy group at the St. Cloud Veterans Hospital.
“Ted is such a wonderful person,” said Meg Marggraf of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church. “When we were building our home, he was there to help in any way he could just becausehe wanted to. He would do anything for anyone.”
At the suggestion of his brother, Myron Wetzel, he began writing about his days in Vietnam. It took 11 years, but he did complete the task and has written an interesting book.
Yet to find a publisher for his book, Wetzel’s daughter had a beautiful book printed for him complete with his many pictures.
Whether or not he finds a way to publish his story, Wetzel feels putting his experiences, thoughts, and feelings on paper has been helpful to him. He will continue living simply, while he recycles and saves because it’s what he feels he has to do.
“I’ve learned to live with what I saw over there,” he said. “And at almost 62 years old, I’m about as happy as I’m gonna be.”