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Ailing Pa. vet honored for service in Vietnam

PHILADELPHIA — Among those in the first major battle of the Vietnam War — the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, a struggle that would help set the stage for the rest of the war — was Robert Harvey Gsell, a 20-year-old from Mount Holly.

"He didn't go to sleep for nine days," his wife, Geraldine, recalled. "A lot of the things he saw were so horrific."

The November 1965 battle was the first significant contact between American and North Vietnamese forces in a war that would expose Army Pfc. Gsell to bloodshed, some of it involving children.

It has been a half-century since Gsell returned from the war to a country bitterly divided. But on Monday, Gloucester County officials were on hand to finally say to him: "Welcome home."

Inside the 69-year-old veteran's Westville home, decorated with patriotic balloons, they presented him with a county Military Service Medal.

Even though decades have passed, family members said, the public recognition means the world to Gsell, who has congestive heart failure and is receiving home hospice care. He's been no stranger to mental and physical battles in the years since his service.

"He needs to have this," said "Gerri" Gsell, 58. "He's a good guy."

Gsell, who goes by Harvey, was one of 11 siblings. After enlisting in the Army, he served four years and was in the First Cavalry Division, Air Mobile. After he returned home from his year in Vietnam, he grappled with drug and alcohol abuse and went undiagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Gerri Gsell said.

The father of four and grandfather of eight triumphed over throat cancer, but related neck surgery 15 years ago left him reliant on a feeding tube. Several years ago, he hit his head and broke his neck, which left him using a wheelchair. About a month ago, his heart condition was diagnosed.

The ceremony Monday was markedly different from how it was in 1966, family members said. The Gsells' quaint white home on Birch Avenue was standing room only, with family and reporters squeezing in.

Karen Emerle, a social worker with Samaritan Healthcare and Hospice, which has been caring for Gsell, asked the county for the recognition.

"A lot of his problems are from the Vietnam War," Emerle said. "He's never received the recognition, I think, that he deserves."

"He's alert and able to receive it," she added. "Things can change quickly."

Duane Sarmiento, the county's Veterans Affairs director, presented the medal alongside Freeholder Deputy Director Joe Chila. The county honors veterans at a ceremony every year, Sarmiento said, but occasionally does individual ceremonies when circumstances call for it.

"The way he looks today, he'd get out of his chair and come fishing with me," said Gsell's brother Frederick, recalling their fishing excursions at Penn Warner Club in Morrisville.

Frederick Gsell, 71, remembered his brother having flashbacks to the war but said he hardly discussed it. "That's one thing my brother never did," he said.

In the decades after his service, Gsell worked as a painter and in maintenance before becoming a manager of the Camelot Apartments in Marlton with his wife. The two have been married for 40 years.

The couple lived in Michigan briefly before moving back to New Jersey and into their home in Westville a decade ago.

Following his service, Gsell was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge and the Vietnam Service Medal, among others.

But the county honor, Gerri Gsell said, was a public statement about Gsell's service.

And it was a testament to what the family already knew, Frederick Gsell said. He told his brother: "Harvey, you've been the star all your life, as far as I'm concerned."
 

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