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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 local candidate for the United States Military Academy at West Point dropped out, and Wetzel ended up being picked as the replacement. He graduated from West Point in 1952 as an infantry officer.
He was immediately deployed to the Korean War, where he saw action as a young company commander. Under fire for the first time, his first and instinctive concern was for the lives of his soldiers. From that time through his retirement in 1986, Wetzel almost invariably served as a "field" commander, meaning an officer who leads men on the ground as opposed to working behind the scenes at a desk.
Wetzel's leadership secret - "you get those soldiers to where they'd throw themselves in front of a tank for you" - was once laid out at a leadership discussion where Wetzel was not present. One participant at the meeting apparently did not believe that this concluded matters and responded, "Well, did Wetzel mention how exactly he managed to do that?".
Lieutenant Colonel Wetzel was deployed to Vietnam in 1968 as the Battalion Commander of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment (United States), the "Polar Bears". At one point, after an enemy bullet struck him, he declined a Purple Heart for which he could have easily and successfully applied. He judged the wound too insignificant to mention, despite the fact that it left him with a permanent scar. Wetzel went on to lead his battalion in a successful textbook military battle to secure an important mountainous area.
Returning from the front, Wetzel eventually married an American Vietnam widow with five young children. He was promoted to full 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 as a "field general," again, one who wears combat boots and leads soldiers on the ground. He was given command of the coveted First Infantry Division (forward) in Goeppingen, Germany. When this command concluded, the commander of all European and American forces in Europe, General Alexander M. Haig, then personally pinned Wetzel's second star on him.
From 1978-79, Wetzel served as General Haig's chief-of-staff in Belgium. Wetzel accepted this assignment reluctantly, for it meant shedding his fatigues and working behind a desk - fifteen feet from Haig's desk, seven days per week. But the timing of the assignment was fortunate. Since the 1950s, NATO and American strategy had been to save money by maintaining conventional forces (tanks, planes and soldiers) in Europe that could not possibly withstand an invasion by Warsaw Pact forces. The front-line troops served as a trip-wire for a nuclear response. But 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, the 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, where he revealed a marked preference for the surprise night attack.
In 1981, Wetzel was diagnosed with terminal melanoma cancer. Although he bought a new suit and insisted he would "beat this thing", the army and four doctors did not agree. He was given less than a year to live, and offered a full medical disability in exchange for retirement. Wetzel refused, he later said he just wanted to get back to the troops. 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 stripped him of his command and sent him back to America to end his days. However, he made a full recovery. He was soon placed in command of the famous infantry training center in Fort Benning, Georgia. In 1983, Wetzel was awarded his third star, 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. In 1986, Colin Powell took over the command of V Corps in Frankfurt, Germany, from Robert Lewis "Sam" Wetzel. 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 factors being the Reagan defense build-up and SDI specifically).
- "The Decade of The 1980's". thedecadeofthe1980s.yolasite.com. Retrieved 7 August 2017.