Rolling Thunder is more than just the sound of the thousands of motorcycles roaring past the monuments, it is an organization founded in 1987 that puts together a ride to Washington, D.C., each year to raise awareness of the Prisoners of War and Missing in Action (POW/MIA) from Vietnam. Over the years, the ride has grown and their focus has expanded beyond the Vietnam War to include other wars. Sadly, 2019 is their final ride.
Gary Wetzel has been the leader of the pack for most of the annual rides in Washington, D.C. To me, he is a friend and a fellow Harley Davidson rider. He is also a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson presented Gary Wetzel with the Medal of Honor at a ceremony on Nov. 19, 1968. His citation reads:
“Sp4c. Wetzel, 173d Assault Helicopter Company, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life. above and beyond the call of duty. Sp4c. Wetzel was serving as door gunner aboard a helicopter which was part of an insertion force trapped in a landing zone by intense and deadly hostile fire. Sp4c. Wetzel was going to the aid of his aircraft commander when he was blown into a rice paddy and critically wounded by 2 enemy rockets that exploded just inches from his location.
“Although bleeding profusely due to the loss of his left arm and severe wounds in his right arm, chest, and left leg, Sp4c. Wetzel staggered back to his original position in his gun-well and took the enemy forces under fire. His machinegun was the only weapon placing effective fire on the enemy at that time. Through a resolve that overcame the shock and intolerable pain of his injuries, Sp4c. Wetzel remained at his position until he had eliminated the automatic weapons emplacement that had been inflicting heavy casualties on the American troops and preventing them from moving against this strong enemy force.
Refusing to attend his own extensive wounds, he attempted to return to the aid of his aircraft commander but passed out from loss of blood. Regaining consciousness, he persisted in his efforts to drag himself to the aid of his fellow crewman. After an agonizing effort, he came to the side of the crew chief who was attempting to drag the wounded aircraft commander to the safety of a nearby dike. Unswerving in his devotion to his fellow man, Sp4c. Wetzel assisted his crew chief even though he lost consciousness once again during this action.
“Sp4c. Wetzel displayed extraordinary heroism in his efforts to aid his fellow crewmen. His gallant actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.”
Gary Wetzel was hit by two enemy rockets that blew off his left arm and even though he was bleeding profusely, he went back to his gun-well to take on the enemy forces. This guy is amazing. A true American hero.
Now, Gary Wetzel is back in town for Rolling Thunder. Because of what happened in Vietnam, he has a prosthetic left arm. He designed it so he could pull his clutch in and out on the bike. I’ve seen him do it as we road our motorcycles around Wisconsin many times in the past, often supporting veterans and veterans’ causes.
More than once, I’ve also had the honor of putting the blue ribbon around his neck for a ceremony at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Every time, he says he’s just a caretaker — that he was just doing his job as a soldier. He says he’s wearing it for those who never made it home.
And that is what Rolling Thunder and Memorial Day are really all about.
It’s not about firing up the grill or watching a baseball game. It is not even about parades or flags or even motorcycles.
Memorial Day is about remembering those who never made it home. And those who remember them every single day. It is a day to remember the Prisoners of War. It is a day to remember the Missing in Action. And it is a day to remember the more than 1.3 million service members who were killed during wars and conflicts since the start of our great country.
These men and women paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we hold dear today. May their sacrifice not be in vain. May we continue to remember them, their family and friends, and the principles that they died for on this Memorial Day weekend.
Thank God for heroes like my friend Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Gary Wetzel. We are thankful that there are men and women like him who are willing to sacrifice everything to protect our great country.
• Scott Walker was the 45th governor of Wisconsin. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @ScottWalker.
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