Retired Lt. Gen. Sam Wetzel worked to get the words out Tuesday night as he stood in front of nearly 500 soldiers and retired soldiers to accept the prestigious Doughboy Award.
His voice is not as strong as it was in his younger years, but Wetzel was speaking more from the heart than the throat.
Wetzel, near his 88th birthday, received the highest honor from the Chief of Infantry, Brig. Gen. David Hodne, during at dinner at the National Infantry Museum sponsored by the National Infantry Association. Retired Sgt. Maj. Autrail Cobb. and Gary L. Fox were also honored for their distinguished service by the foundation.
Wetzel, a Korean War and Vietnam veteran who spent 34 years in uniform after graduating from the United States Military Academy in 1952, described the job of a combat infantryman in great detail.
“The combat infantryman is the one who slogs it out no matter the mud or the slippery rocks; no matter the stifling heat or the bitter cold; no matter pouring rain or snow storm; no matter enemy machine gun or AK-47 round; no matter the fires, smoke or explosions; no matter the shrapnel flying through the trees; no matter the confusion and chaos around him; no matter how tired. No matter what, the combat infantry man still climbs and crawls to the objective. No matter what, the combat infantryman closes with the enemy in the last yard.
“For that reason, I say, the noblest man of all is the combat infantryman. Let that sink in. The noblest man of all is the combat infantryman. I am proud to have been one.”
Wetzel, a Columbus resident, rose to the highest ranks during his Army tenure, which ended in 1986. His final three assignments, all after he had been diagnosed with what was believed to be terminal melanoma cancer, included commanding general at Fort Benning, deputy commander in chief of U.S. Forces in Europe and commander of V Corps in Frankfurt, Germany.
After the cancer diagnosis in which doctors gave him a year to live, Wetzel refused to accept a medical retirement and signed a waiver to continue his military service.
“The U.S. Army has been my life and passion for 70 years,” Wetzel said. “I left West ‘By God’ Virginia — and yes it is West ‘By God’ Virginia — in 1948 for a train to West Point, a skinny, lanky boy much like the recruits you see in Columbus today,” Wetzel said. “... I have embraced military life — and accepted its challenges and its opportunities, from wartime service in Korea and Vietnam to 12 years of Cold War service in Europe. The U.S. Army — and the infantry — was my love.”
Cobb, a former command sergeant major of Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk and the Infantry Center at Fort Benning, said being an infantry solider was about heart.
“I got to tell you the special hats, the special uniforms, those suede boots, all that don’t make a soldier,” said Cobb, who retired in 1995. “That new M-4 carbine that has all the bells, whistles and flashlights don’t make a soldier. Sgt. (Alvin) York attacked a machine gun position, what did he have, a .45 pistol and an M-3 rifle? Let me tell you, what makes a soldier in our Army today is heart.”
Cobb then patted his chest.
“The more heart you got, the farther you are going to go,” he said as the audience clapped.
Past recipients of the award, which was instituted in 1980, include entertainer Bob Hope, Sen. Bob Dole, retired Lt. Gen. David E. Grange Jr., retired Gen. and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley and retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore.