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Vietnam veteran forges unique connection with four-year-old girl

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- A decorated soldier, home from the war-zone more than 40 years is fighting a new battle at home, after a chance meeting led to an unlikely friendship.

Just like his hero John Wayne, Gary Wetzel is a man of few words. But if you catch him in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, the burly Vietnam vet opens up about a little girl.

"Little girl -- four years old, and her name is Bella," Wetzel said.

It's a story that is remarkable -- but first -- you have to know Gary Wetzel.

"I grew up in a little town called Caryville, little town south of here.  It's a city within a city," Wetzel said.

Wetzel was one of nine children raised in a working class family.

"The big thing was just to get through school.  Didn't have no college plans," Wetzel said.

After school, Wetzel signed up for the service. He enlisted on February 15th, 1966, and was in the Army at age 18. Wetzel was in Vietnam soon after.

"I always liked flying. I'd see all these choppers flying all over the place and a friend of mine says 'if you're in the service for a year and one day, you can re-enlist and get your choice of duty station.' I'm like, 'I can go in the helicopter?' He said, 'yeah.' So..." Wetzel said.

Cut to January 8th, 1968.

"A lot of lives lost that day. We were, that particular day, flying what they call Eagle Flights.  You've got two sets of helicopters, five each, loaded with grunts, infantry and we fly around like an eagle and you look for something. If you see something out of whack, you shoot down in and drop the troops off.  They go sneaking and peeking. You take off and go land some place or you're flying in the area looking to see if something's there.  If not, you come back in, you pick 'em up, you fly around and you look for some more mischief to get into," Wetzel said.

It was strangely quiet. As the crew returned to the landing zone, there wasn't a stir.

"I'm waiting for all this and nothing's happening, and you just know -- from experience --  I look out my chopper and look in the back, and the gunships are behind us -- and it's like, aw, hell," Wetzel said.

They were trapped by enemy fire.

"The crossfire was so bad. We got two guys that didn't even leave the cabin.  How come I got nailed?  I don't even know," Wetzel said.

Then, a homemade grenade went off behind Wetzel, and took his arm. As blood drained from his body, Wetzel staggered back to his post and got behind his M-60 machine gun.

"I didn't want to die in a sloppy rice paddy, and I had a little bit more spunk left in me, and I knew that 60 was back over at the ship, so I did my best to get back over there," Wetzel said.

Wetzel was shot, stabbed with a bayonet, and yet, he fought on. With one arm. For 11 hours. As he was going in and out of consciousness -- until the threat was eliminated.

"Are people afraid?  Yeah, people are afraid, and there's nothing wrong with fear.  I just chose to take a different route. Other people needed help, and I was still able to do it.  I had the idea that this was my last go around, so try and make the best of it," Wetzel said.

In November of 1968, Wetzel received the highest military distinction at the White House -- the Medal of Honor.

"When I have the honor to wear that blue ribbon, I wear it for everybody.  I'm just a soldier doing a job. Medically, I should have been dead.  Should have been dead.   But for some reason, here I am," Wetzel said.

Now, we go back to Wetzel's involvement with four-year-old Bella.

"So, Bella's four.   She's a little girl, obviously very girly.  Gary's a big tough biker guy, with a prosthetic limb, and she's never really been around or exposed to one," Bella's mother, Sarah Zizzo said.

Little Bella was born without a hand.

"She's amazing.  She's spunky, she's sassy, she's stubborn.  She's full of energy and full of life and she makes everybody near her happy.  Laughter that's contagious.  People look at her and so many people don't even know she's born with a limb difference," Zizzo said.

Bella has always been without a hand -- and Wetzel, of course, lost his at war.

"So we had that bond," Wetzel said.

When Wetzel learned that kids had been teasing Bella, he felt he had to fight for her.

"To have somebody reach out because they're touched by your four-year-old, it's incredible.  It just goes to show you that there are good people out there," Zizzo said.

When Wetzel learned of a camp in Florida that unites kids without limbs, he lent his hand again.

"It's huge to have him look at our family and say 'we want to do anything we can,'" Zizzo said.

Wetzel raised some $5,000 to send Bella to "Camp No Limits."

Bella's mother says she has learned heroes don't only fight in wars -- though this one happened to.

"It makes me emotional what he did in the war.  He's definitely a hero for doing that.  This is a hero to us because he's reaching out.  He's helping," Zizzo said.

"I was just a guy trying to do a job.  Somebody need help.  I had a little bit more spunk left in me and I gave it my best shot," Wetzel said.

"Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway" -- said Wetzel's hero, John Wayne -- and Wetzel has saddled up again.

"I shouldn't be here, but I am.  If I'm here for a purpose, fine.  If I'm here to help other people out, I'm happy for that," Wetzel said.

Wetzel's "Ride for Bella" will take place on Saturday, October 26th at the Oak Creek American Legion Post on South Shepard Avenue. It is $10 per person for the motorcycle ride, and there will be an after party at 6:00, with Bella stopping by at 7:00.

5 comments

  • Monica

    Bless his heart, that brought tears to my eyes!! He really is a hero, thank you so much for your service sir, in the military and out. Miss Bella..Keep smiling beautiful, your great attitude will take you far in life :)

  • diane rateike

    Met Gary right after he got back from Nam but have not seen him in many yrs. So happy to see what he’s doing. God Bless Gary! Back then my name was Lampton}

  • Merrie Kazian

    God bless you, Gary! Wish I could be in Milwaukee for that event.If you ever want to take a road trip, come to Ironwood MI and visit God’s country.

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