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Robert Lewis "Sam" Wetzel, of Clarksburg, West Virginia, graduated high school in 1948 and was planning to attend Purdue University and a career as an engineer. A recently approved candidate for the United States Military Academy at West Point dropped out, and Wetzel ended up being his replacement.
In 1961, Captain Wetzel was the aide of Major General William Westmoreland, then Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He also commanded a mechanized infantry company in Germany.
Lieutenant Colonel Wetzel was deployed to Vietnam in 1968 as the commander of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment (United States), the "Polar Bears". After an enemy bullet nicked him on the forehead, he declined a Purple Heart, judging the wound too insignificant to mention, despite the fact that it left him with a permanent scar.
Returning from the front, Wetzel eventually married an American Vietnam widow with five young children. He was promoted to colonel and soon assumed command of a brigade in Fort Carson, Colorado. In 1975, he was promoted to brigadier general and sent to West Germany.
He then began a rapid ascent. He was given command of the First Infantry Division (forward) in Goeppingen, Germany. When this command concluded, the commander of all European and American forces in Europe, General Alexander Haig, then personally pinned Wetzel's second star on him.
From 1978-79, Wetzel served as Haig's chief-of-staff in Belgium. Just before Wetzel's arrival at Haig's office, the Soviets had deployed their SS-20 theater nuclear missiles in Europe. This upset the entire balance of NATO deterrence and Western security. During this year together, Haig, Wetzel and the rest of the staff crafted what became the West's strategic response - deployment in Europe of the Pershing II missiles, which could hit Moscow in the event of war, allowing only minutes for the Soviets to react. During the next four years, domestic political battles began in NATO countries as to whether the Pershing II missiles would actually be deployed.
After serving as Haig's Chief of Staff, Wetzel commanded the Third Infantry Division in Würzburg. Wetzel led his division to victory in the annual war games staged in West Germany.
In 1981, Wetzel was diagnosed with terminal melanoma cancer. He was given less than a year to live, and offered a full medical disability in exchange for retirement. Wetzel refused. The Army reluctantly permitted him to stay on, but only after he signed a full waiver. Judging Wetzel to be at death's door, the Army sent him back to the United States. However, he made a full recovery. He was soon placed in command of the infantry training center in Fort Benning, Georgia. In 1983, Wetzel was promoted to lieutenant general. and he returned to the troops in Germany.
Wetzel's first position back in Germany was Deputy Commander in Chief of U.S. Forces in Europe. The NATO allies had finally approved the Pershing II plan. Immediately upon his arrival, it became Wetzel's job to receive and deploy the Pershing II missiles in the midst of anti-war demonstrations all over Europe. Today, Cold War historians (relying on the candid confessions of defeated Russian leaders) credit the deployment of the Pershing II missiles as one of three key factors that broke the Soviets' back and ended the Cold War (the other two being the Reagan defense build-up and SDI specifically).
Awards and decorationsEdit
Wetzel's awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, Bronze Star, two Legion of Merits, six Air Medals, Joint Superior Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and Combat Infantryman's Badge with Star.
- Kari Hawkins (February 19, 2009). "Retired General Officer Leads Veterans Cause". www.army.mil. United States Army.
- Creighton, Neal (September 5, 2008). A Different Path: The Story of an Army Family. Xlibris Corporation. p. 112. ISBN 9781456806033. Retrieved January 24, 2018.
- Sorley, Lewis (October 11, 2011). Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. HMH. p. 59. ISBN 9780547518275. Retrieved January 24, 2018.
- Powell, Colin L.; Persico, Joseph E. (December 29, 2010). My American Journey. Random House Publishing Group. p. 316. ISBN 9780307763686. Retrieved January 24, 2018.