By Paul Wood
RANTOUL — Jerry Wiese lost eight friends and comrades in his platoon on a single bloody day in Vietnam, where he served as a combat medic who carried an M-16 along with his bandages.
He is proud of his service in a divisive war, and is also the event coordinator for the National 2017 Vietnam veterans reunion to be held in Effingham in September.
Wiese didn’t choose to be a medic, but scored so well on tests (which he entered randomly) that he was assigned to the position.
On his wall hang certificates for the Bronze Star and Vietnamese Legion of Honor for a series of six-week missions in 1971. There’s also a soft hat on a shelf, soaked with “Vietnam sweat,” that he wore instead of a heavy helmet.
Wiese’s father was in the Air Force, which caused the family to move around a lot.
Wiese himself was 18 and having trouble with a girlfriend, who was dating an airman at Chanute Air Force Base when he volunteered for the Army.
“I figured if she liked uniforms, I’d get one, too,” he says.
He remembers it was not long after the shootings at Kent State University that he took the train from Rantoul here.
He went to a barbershop near the Army recruiting office in downtown Champaign. He told the barber to take it all off, military style.
“Then I walked through the (anti-war) protesters into the recruiting station,” he recalls.
Wiese was in a rush to get into action, but the recruiters told him to slow down.
“I wanted to go overseas, but they told me you couldn’t volunteer for Vietnam until you graduated from basic and had more training,” he says.
Wiese gave them an ultimatum, basically “I’m out of here if I don’t ship out today,” and the recruiters backed down.
On his 19th birthday, the medic was in Vietnam, in country — and, in fact, very deep in country.
He served with Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 21st Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade.
On April 23, 1971, the Specialist E4 and members of his platoon were dug in against enemy fire.
An artillery shell exploded, and the medic had to go to work bandaging badly wounded soldiers. Seven died at the scene.
Wiese says he didn’t use the morphine he had with him to medicate the wounded, because of its effects on the respiratory system.
Doctors would soon be checking their vitals, and the drug would interfere with that.
“You were never far from a medical base by helicopter, no more than 20 minutes,” he explains.
Even mundane life was difficult in the jungle when you’re carrying an M-16 rifle and a full load of equipment.
On six-week missions out of Fire Base San Juan Hill, “we humped our rucksacks all day long. That rucksack had everything you owned.”
Besides the rifle, that meant 20 pounds of ammo, two hand grenades, two smoke grenades, eight quarts of water, food, medicine and whatever else you might need over the course of weeks.
His gear weighed “easily” 70 pounds.
“It was so heavy that once I literally could not get up from the ground without a guy giving me a hand,” he recalls.
He even kept a towel on his shoulder to keep the straps from cutting into his skin.
Wiese retired after 35 years at Kraft to a home full of memorabilia from his years in service, military service organizations and his collections.
He and wife Shirley have six children between them.
“I’m certainly proud of what I did,” he says. “It was the greatest adventure of my life.”
He believes Vietnam veterans have never received the acclaim they deserve, as have veterans from other armed conflicts.
Wiese encourages other veterans to embrace their patriotism and celebrate their service.
He is an organizer of the planned 2017 Vietnam Veterans Festival, which will be held near Effingham on Sept. 22, 23 and 24.
A page to raise money is at www.gofundme.com/2qeu6exg. Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.