Protect & Serve: Former Scranton mayor never let severe Vietnam War injuries keep him down
By JOSH MCAULIFFE | The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa. | Published: November 25, 2012
David Wenzel had one very clear objective upon arriving in the Vietnamese countryside in October 1970 to lead a platoon within the Army's 23rd Infantry Division.
"I always felt that to protect your men was No. 1, while the mission was second," he said.
And protect them he did. During the nearly four months the young lieutenant led his platoon, he only incurred a single casualty.
A land mine left the South Scranton resident a triple amputee - both legs above the knee, his left arm above the wrist - and eventually without sight in his left eye. But since that awful day almost 42 years ago, Mr. Wenzel has transcended those injuries in so many ways, from his work on behalf of veterans and people with disabilities to his many years as a public servant, which culminated with him serving as Scranton's mayor from 1986 to '90.
A recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star "V" Device, Mr. Wenzel is now in the process of writing a memoir about his life, including his time in Vietnam, mostly as a keepsake for his nieces and nephews.
The war affected him in many ways, but it never made him bitter.
"I took a very philosophical view about it," said Mr. Wenzel, 67, during a recent afternoon at his home. "I did my duty for my country, and this is what happened. That's the way it is."
Mr. Wenzel's introduction to the military came via a draft notice that arrived in July 1964. He had just finished squandering his freshman year at The Pennsylvania State University's main campus in State College.
"I had gotten involved with a bunch of guys who liked to play cards. As a result, my grades were terrible," he said with a laugh.
So bad, in fact, that the school wouldn't allow him to come back for his sophomore year. The Army gave him the option to continue his schooling, with the understanding that as soon as he got out, he would go directly into the service.
He enrolled at the University of Scranton, and, while pursuing his degree in business, joined ROTC, ensuring he would come out of college a commissioned officer. "ROTC was a pain in the ass," he said with a laugh. "Because you're marching around and it means nothing."
Graduating in the spring of 1969, Mr. Wenzel then headed off to Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training. He has a picture of himself during his time there, looking youthful and carefree as he practiced his hand-to-hand combat moves.
In early 1970, he was sent to Fort Riley, Kan. A number of soldiers under his command there had already done their tours in Vietnam and were finishing up their military commitments stateside. For two weeks during that period, he was sent to Panama along with other Army officers to get acquainted to the jungle terrain awaiting them in 'Nam.
"That's when it dawned on me I was not going to be in the rear area in Vietnam," said Mr. Wenzel, who still has the certificate establishing him an official jungle expert.
He married his wife, Janet, that summer. Before leaving for 'Nam, he got to take his new bride on a proper honeymoon, to Colorado and the Grand Canyon, where Mr. Wenzel hiked to the bottom and back to the top all in the course of one very long day.
In the beginning of October, it was finally time for him to begin his tour. Before boarding the plane that would take him to Southeast Asia, he said to Mrs. Wenzel, "Don't worry, I'm a lucky guy."
Arriving in Cam Rahn Bay, Mr. Wenzel was sent to Chu Lai for special training before settling in with his battalion from the 23rd, aka the Americal Division, at Fire Support Base 411, or Hill 411, about six miles west of Quang Ninh. During the whole helicopter ride to the base, he kept thinking to himself, "Is this really happening to me? What did I get myself into?"
He can still vividly recall the roads surrounding the base, which were often strewn with the base's garbage, though not for long. "Kids would come from the local village and go through all that stuff. And in 20 minutes, anything that was metal, anything that was edible, was all gone," he said.
By this time, the Nixon administration had begun its Vietnamization policy, through which the South Vietnamese military's combat role was expanded while the Americans' burden was lessened. Thus, there were hardly any fixed battles for Mr. Wenzel, a first lieutenant, and his mortar platoon to engage in.
"We knew (the war) was going to be over with soon," he said. "We already knew we weren't going to win anything. We weren't going to decide any battles or change the course of anything. So basically the idea was to stay alive."
"Also, I was lucky to be there during the rainy season," he added. "Because supposedly the Viet Cong hid out during the rainy season."
At any given time, three of the battalion's four companies would be out on patrol in the horeshoe-shaped area near the Song Tra Khuc River. They were in a "free fire zone," meaning, once they left the base, they could open fire on any Vietnamese who had a rifle or carried a backpack.
Some days, Mr. Wenzel and his men would be sent out by helicopter to check out a village. If they found anyone there over the age of 15, they brought them back for interrogation.
Among the few pictures Mr. Wenzel has of his time in Vietnam - he took two cameras, but they were lost after his injury - is a soldier lounging on the side of the road in a village. It was a regular scene, he said. The kids from the village would come up to the soldiers and sell them Cokes. They liked having the kids around, he said, "because then we knew there were no land mines."
There were a few occasions when his captain would order Mr. Wenzel and his platoon to go out on nighttime missions in search of "blood trails." Mr. Wenzel found them to be a fool's errand, both completely unnecessary and dangerous. One night, he heard a soldier refuse to go out on reconnaissance patrol. To save the kid from a potential court martial, Mr. Wenzel decided the entire platoon would go out on patrol.
"This is at nighttime. You're not going to find anything at nighttime," he said. "I was more concerned with the safety of the men. I figured if we were going to kill somebody, it was going to be ourselves. Accidents."
He succeeded in this venture. In the nearly four months he led his platoon, not one of his men was killed or even injured, an impressive feat, considering 23 from their fire base perished during that period. Mr. Wenzel never even had to fire his rile.
Of course, his luck eventually ran out.
On Jan. 25, 1971, he was up on a mound where the platoon would be spending the night, looking for spots where his men could fire illumination rounds that night, which would light up the nearby river and keep any potential enemies away.
Walking through grass that went up to his ankles, he was also on the hunt for trip wires. "I figured they're not going to put (a mine) in the grass, because you'd see it," he said.
But this particular mine under his foot was. The Viet Cong who put it there had cut out the grass, placed the mine there, then put the grass back over it.
Lying there, Mr. Wenzel was still very conscious as his men quickly came to his aid in the seconds following the blast. The fact that he was looking forward, and not down at the ground, likely saved him from sure death. His left arm was the only spot on the upper part of his body that was hit, because of the way he was holding his rifle.
Complicating matters was the fact that the platoon didn't have a radio to call in a helicopter, because theirs had broken before they left on the mission. A runner was sent to catch up with another platoon, and eventually a chopper arrived.
"I knew it was serious just by the guy's face," he said. "I grabbed his hand and said something like, 'Tell my wife I was thinking of her.'"
His legs were on fire, and he had no sensation in his left hand. For a moment, he even considered grabbing the grenade attached to his utility belt and making the pain go away for good.
He felt an odd sense of relief. After all these months of endless anxiety, he was finally getting out of Vietnam, be it dead or alive.
Mr. Wenzel was taken up the coast, to an operating room in Chu Lai. He spent the next seven hours in surgery.
The first thing the nurse told him when he woke up was, "You're lucky to be alive."
In the days after the surgery, his doctors were worried about his white blood cell count. Meanwhile, his temperature kept going up, so high that he needed to be packed in ice, which in this case turned out to be a cooler full of beer.
It wasn't until he was sent to Japan that doctors discovered he also had a detached retina, a result of him hitting the ground with great force during the blast.
Finally, he made his way back to the states, to Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville. He spent the remainder of '71 doing his rehabilitation there.
Asked about his state of mind at the time, Mr. Wenzel said it was important for him not to get bogged down by his circumstances. Instead, he simply focused on what was immediately on the horizon.
"I just kept it on the straight and narrow. I got this operation, I got that operation. Because you never knew where you were going to end up," he said.
The support from his family also helped a great deal. By then, Mrs. Wenzel was teaching elementary school in the Scranton School District, but, along with her father, still managed to make the drive down to Valley Forge everyday.
The process of fitting Mr. Wenzel with a well-fitting pair of prosthetic legs was long and quite frustrating, he said. He was constantly going to Philadelphia for adjustments at the shop that made them.
"I must have gone back 15 times," he said. "It was a long haul. It was tough."
But he made it, and when he arrived back in Scranton, he was treated to glowing stories in the local newspapers, and accolades from a host of organizations. He received the hero's welcome he deserved, the hero's welcome that eluded so many of his fellow Vietnam vets.
Now, the challenge was for him to make a life for himself postwar, postinjury.
"I was surprised how nonchalant I was. I thought, I'm just going to get on with my life, and I'm not going to worry about anything," he said. "There was very little remorse that took place. You've got your up days, you've got your down days."