By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN What was life like as a US soldier in the Vietnam War?
In vivid detail, veteran Ted Wetzel of Delano has written his experiences in a new book called “Render Unto Caesar.”
“I’d just like to encourage other veterans to write down their stories, too whether it’s Vietnam, WWII, Korea, Iraq, or Afghanistan,” Wetzel said. “These are the stories of people who were actually there.”
So far, 100 spiral-bound copies have been printed, complete with 84 photos. Anyone interested in purchasing Wetzel’s book ($15 each) is encouraged to call him at (763) 528-0326.
A year of fear
The year Wetzel was in Vietnam (February 1967 to February 1968) was one that changed his life forever.
“If I hear a loud noise, I jump, and the sound of a helicopter still bothers me,” said Wetzel, who attends post-traumatic stress disorder meetings every Monday.
His brother, Myron, had written about the day Wetzel left in a high school report:
“ . . . There he was in his uniform, ready to go. I had thought about what I was going to say, but when I grasped his hand, the thoughts ran out of my head like water. Neither of us had anything to say. We both knew what the other was thinking. I said, ‘I’ll see you when you come home.’ That’s all . . . ”
Wetzel recalled thinking that it could possibly be the last time he saw his family, but also had hope that he’d be home soon.
“We thought we were going to take care of this and be back for the weekend to drink beer,” he said.
Kill or be killed
Soon, however, the soldiers were immersed in a “kill or be killed” reality, where every day became a fight for survival.
“You could have been killed at any moment,” Wetzel said, adding that everyone was a potential enemy.
He remembers Vietnamese people on bicycles, trying to force him to steer into a land mine. The bicyclists would use children as human shields, so that the soldiers wouldn’t shoot them.
“After they’d done it a couple times, I’d look down, with one hand on the steering wheel,” Wetzel said. “They thought I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t see them, so they’d get out of the way.”
Children were also forced to act as decoys, calling out to soldiers as they drove by. In one instance, Wetzel stopped to give a starving child some food, when people from a nearby house (or hooch) started shooting at him with their AK-47s.
Ice cream or blood?
Some days were better than others, and the soldiers found humor in otherwise dreary circumstances.
“One night for supper we got strawberry ice cream a whole bunch of it; more than we could ever eat at one time,” Wetzel said.
So, when the guys went to the bunkers to keep watch that night, they took the ice cream (which came in 2-gallon cardboard containers) with them.
“Of course, it was melting and leaking and everything,” he said.
Later on, the CQ (short for Charge of Quarters) went to check on the bunkers.
“He saw the red streaks in the dirt and panicked,” Wetzel said. “He called in the helicopter, thinking it was blood.”
It wasn’t until everyone was “locked and loaded and ready for something big” that the CQ found out about the ice cream.
“We never had ice cream again,” Wetzel wrote in his book. “Wonder why.”
Another false alarm occurred one evening after a “good long monsoon rain day.” Some of the soldiers’ tents were dug into the ground about 5 or 6 feet in case of mortar attacks, so that only a direct hit would cause substantial damage.
“That was fine, until the rain came and all those low spots filled up with water,” Wetzel noted.
As the guys were pumping water out of the holes, they came to one where the water was 3 to 4 feet deep. Inside was a soldier called SP4 Long, sound asleep on his air mattress, floating in the water.
“Course, the rats are floating around, too,” Wetzel said.
They shot the rats, waking Long up in the process. Thinking he was in his usual sleeping place, Long reached for his M-16, but ended up rolling off his mattress into the water.
“He went under for about one second, came up again, stood up and just looked around, stunned,” Wetzel noted. “He resembled a cartoon character that just got hit by lightning.”
Never the same
Being constantly alert in Vietnam made it tough for many soldiers to transition to life back in the US.
Wetzel remembers coming home to his parents’ farm in rural Carver County, and being convinced that a sniper was hiding in his hay barn.
To avoid the hay barn chores, Wetzel offered to drive the tractor. But without sandbags on the platform to protect from shrapnel, the 620 John Deere didn’t seem safe, either.
Wetzel never told his family about his fears at the time.
“How do you explain something like that?” he asked.
Dealing with the public’s unfavorable perception of the war was also difficult.
“When we came back, nobody wanted to hear anything,” he said. “Then, you almost had to be ashamed to wear a uniform.”
In the 1980s, Wetzel’s brother, Myron, asked him to write down what a typical week was like in Vietnam.
“As I tried to do that, I thought, ‘this isn’t going to work.’ There was no typical week,” Wetzel said.
So, for the next decade, he kept writing, gradually compiling memories of the entire year.
“Someone finally asked, so here it is,” he said.