A warrior’s story
Monday, January 6, 2014
The United States military veterans, particularly those who have endured the sting of combat, often possess a unique perspective regarding the value of life, born of a set of experiences not commonly understood by those outside of the service.
Such a background shines a positive light on the fighting spirit demonstrated by many of our local Vietnam veterans such as Rick Fechtel.
A 1963 graduate of Helias, Fechtel recalls a youthful yearning to find excitement outside of his Westphalia community as the primary impetus behind his decision to enlist in the Marine Corps.
“I just wanted to get away, I guess,” said Fechtel, 68, Jefferson City.
Completing his initial training despite a slight delay due to his contraction of pneumonia, Fechtel went on to attend advanced training as an infantryman.
He remained at his training site of Camp Pendleton, Calif., and was assigned as a machine gunner in a weapons platoon with M Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.
As Fechtel explained, the next year of his assignment was spent training with “old World War II ships, practicing beach landings and playing war games.”
The young warrior’s life soon took on a more domestic flavor when in February 1965, he married his fiancée, Judy.
World affairs, however, did not lend much honeymoon time to the recently married couple, since Fechtel soon received orders to report for service in Vietnam — a conflict that was just beginning to flare up.
Arriving in country in October 1965, the young Marine spent his first month in a foreign land “on a hill guarding the perimeter and going on patrols.”
Then, following a brief assignment in Chu Lai guarding an airstrip, Fechtel was transferred to Company D, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, which, at that time, was operating out of a base camp in Dong Ha.
“We did night ambushes, went on patrol (to make contact with enemy forces) … and participated in a lot of different operations,” Fechtel said.
One fateful day, 11 months into his tour, the small-town man was engaged in “Operation Prairie,” during which he experienced a gripping lesson on the horrors of warfare and how one’s life could forever be impacted in the mere passage of moments.
“We walked into an ambush,” Fechtel said, “and I got shot in the face. I heard a little crunch (when the bullet struck his jaw) and just went down. I came to a little while later and could still hear all the action going on around me.”
Pushing himself up on his knees, his ears ringing loudly, Fechtel noticed two North Vietnamese soldiers, who quickly spotted him. When the enemy soldiers raised their weapons and began firing, Fechtel lay down and rolled over, but was struck with a bullet under his shoulder.
Lying in place, he believed the enemy would soon come and finish him off. But they must have thought him dead, Fechtel said, and he was able to crawl toward his fellow Marines’ position where he was treated briefly by a Navy corpsman. He then began the wait for a medical evacuation.
The first helicopter sent to evacuate the wounded was shot down, he recalled, which required a second to be sent in to their combat zone.
When the second helicopter finally arrived, the wounded Fechtel got on next to the Marine operating the machine gun.
“The gunner was blasting away as we were taking off,” Fechtel said. “Rounds were coming in everywhere I took a round in my butt.”
Smiling, he added, “I was the only one that got hit on the chopper. I guess it just wasn’t my day.”
Incurring three wounds within a matter of hours, Fechtel was eventually transferred to a Navy hospital in Millington, Tenn., where he was reunited with his wife and able to see — for the first time — the daughter who had been born during his absence.
Though the wounds to his shoulder and backside quickly healed, the Purple Heart recipient remained in the naval hospital for nearly two years undergoing reconstructive surgery to his lower face.
With his four-year enlistment expiring, Fechtel made the decision to leave the service in May 1968, and returned to Jefferson City to seek employment and spend time with his family.
Following the advice of a friend, he applied for a job with the U.S. Postal Service, from which he retired more than three decades later in 2002 and, in the spirit of continued service, now enjoys volunteering with the Central Missouri Detachment of the Marine Corps League.
Carrying with him the scars from a war more than four decades past, Fechtel believes that although his combat experience seems blessed with a little luck, the realization of those who never made it home from combat is a heaviness that will forever remain in his thoughts.
“I just really appreciate life more than ever,” he said. “It’s just unreal to think of how lucky I was … how close I came to dying.
And after visiting the Moving Vietnam Memorial Wall and seeing all of the names that were listed on there — well, it just makes me think that I must have had an angel or something looking out for me.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
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