By Donna Thornton/News Editor
The talk at Glencoe High School Oct. 22 was about heroes, as the City of Glencoe continued to celebrate the homecoming of hometown hero Josh Wetzel.
Wetzel was serving in Afghanistan when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, or IED, in May.
His injuries required the amputation of both legs, and he continues treatment and rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Wetzel and his wife Paige are making their first visit home since he was injured, and expect to return to Walter Reed Oct. 28.
Wetzel spoke to Glencoe High School and Glencoe Middle School students during an assembly marked by cheers and waving flags, musical tributes and inspiring words.
City of Glencoe Mayor Charles “Peanut” Gilchrist presented Wetzel with the key to the city. Glencoe High School student Tori Parris sang a song she’d written for Wetzel, who graduated with her brother in 2005.
Wetzel asked students about their heroes, and told them about some of his own.
“The heroes that I fought with while I was in Afghanistan were excited to be doing what we’d been trained to do,” Wetzel said. “They’d go through long training at an army base where it rained every day.
“We still trained every day, and it sucked every day,” Wetzel said.
Upon being deployed, he said, the unit encountered the soldiers they were going to replace.
“I’ve never seen anybody with such long faces,” Wetzel said. His unit, he said, was excited to be there, thinking “we get to use this stuff for real.”Then the soldiers were told how the team they replaced had gotten more than 150 Purple Hearts in 13 months, and had more than 30 amputees.
“That excitement turned to being really scared, really quick,” Wetzel recalled, and from his description of the months he spent there before his injury, the fear was justified.
“Every time we stepped outside the wire we took fire,” he said. “You’re walking behind a guy with a mine sweeper,” Wetzel explained, demonstrating a slow pace. “You’re sitting ducks. No cover.”
He recalled being in the third vehicle of a three Stryker vehicle convoy, when his vehicle stopped.
“I’m swinging around with my 50-cal and I hear a BOOM,” Wetzel said. The lead Stryker hit a 150-pound IED and burst into flames. He said he saw a good friend, a fellow team leader, making his way back to the second Stryker, dragging his gun, his face bloodied from shrapnel.
“He grabs a litter and drags it back to the burning Stryker to get his driver,” Wetzel said, saving the man’s life. That soldier, whose clothes were singed off by the flames, is now recovering in a Houston, Texas burn unit
Wetzel shared more memories, of a soldier named Juan Navarro – his number one hero – who was killed in combat after Wetzel was injured. “Every day, he put his men first. He was everything you’d want in a team leader.”
Wetzel told students Veterans Day is coming soon, with assembly programs just like the ones he sat through indifferently when he was a Glencoe student “just waiting to get out.”
“Remember kids in Afghanistan don’t get that. They work when they’re about 10 years old. The girls certainly don’t get to go to school,” Wetzel said.
“When you see veterans of all wars, you go out of your way to shake their hands because they’ve given you something those kids don’t have.”
In the welcome given to Wetzel and his wife Paige, there was a clear sense that a previous generation of veterans wanted to give this soldier something they didn’t have – unwavering support and gratitude for his service and his sacrifice.
“This is the way everyone who serves his country should be welcomed,” Sen. Phil Williams said in front of Glencoe’s war memorial Oct. 18, when a motorcade of law enforcement vehicles led Wetzel’s family from the airport in Birmingham to Glencoe City Hall. Along U.S. 431, the street was lined with students and supporters holding signs and waving flags.
Veterans of conflicts over the decades were there to welcome Wetzel, with the more senior veterans giving him a lifetime membership to the local VFW chapter. Several veterans present had served in a time when there was conflict in the country over the conflicts they served in.
Among men of a certain age, the common sentiment was expressed more than one time: not all soldiers have gotten this welcome when they came home from war and the pain from that emotional wound lingers still.
For Gilchrist, his own experience returning from Vietnam seemed to spur his determination that Wetzel’s homecoming would be different, and he succeeded.
“This is probably one of the best days of my life,” Wetzel said, speaking to those gathered outside city hall.
“Going to Afghanistan, I didn’t want to be a hero, because heroes come home without legs,” Wetzel said. “The day I stepped on that IED (was) the day one of my guys that I deployed with got to live a little longer.
“I would much rather it have been me than anybody else,” Wetzel said. “I’d much rather I be going through this than any of you.
“You give me my strength. You give me my courage, and above all, God has brought me through this,” Wetzel said.
“There was a point … when I didn’t have any of my blood in me. I had other people’s blood in me, all my battle buddies’ blood. They all got in line and gave blood so I could live, and I thank God for it everyday.”
After Wetzel and other spoke Oct. 18, he waited and talked to many of the people who’d come out to welcome him home, shaking their hands and posing for pictures.
“I don’t know what God’s got in store for me,” Wetzel said, “but I think it’s obvious he wants me to share my story.”
Wetzel did that at North Glencoe Baptist Church Oct. 20, at The Vibe worship service, before taking his message to Glencoe students.
Wetzel’s wife Paige, who is from Fort Payne, spoke at the school, thanking everyone for their prayers, their support and the welcome they’d given them.
“We will always claim Glencoe as our home,” Paige Wetzel said. “If you are thinking about the military,” she told students, “we would encourage you.”