By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DEWITT — Walking tentatively through booby-trapped rice paddies and jungles in Vietnam nearly 50 years ago, Gary Froeschle, then 18, wondered whether he’d live to see his 19th birthday. The newly minted high school graduate was 10,000 miles away from home fighting in an unpopular war.
Today he’s a successful business owner, member of St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt, married for almost 39 years, with four children and seven grandchildren. He couldn’t feel more blessed, which is why he agreed to share his story of serving and being wounded on the frontline in Vietnam. He wants to help readers to better understand veterans, many of whom have or will experience Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during their lives. PTSD is a mental condition triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it, according to the Mayo Clinic website. “It is real,” says Gary, who lives with survivor’s guilt.
In 1969 he was an infantryman who would serve 13 months in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division (depicted in the 1987 movie “Platoon”). “The area we were at was so heavily booby-trapped. You literally knew that every step could be your last … men around you were losing arms and legs or dying. You had to learn how to take each step.” Fear evolved into despair. “It’s a matter of when (you might get killed).” He remembers praying, “All I ask is that I’m able to come home and walk and not have to worry about every step I take being my last.”
He recorded an audio tape to send home to his family; a final goodbye, just in case. He expressed gratitude for his eight brothers and sisters and two loving parents back home in Davenport, and chokes up recalling the making of the tape.
Gary suffered his first injury three weeks after arriving “in country.” He tripped a wire in a booby-trapped field; the motion set off a hand grenade that caused shrapnel to pierce his arms and legs. His platoon sergeant, coming to Gary’s aid, was killed when a second wire was tripped. It took years for Gary to come to terms with what happened. After treatment for his wounds in a field hospital, Gary returned to the frontline.
Less than two months later, during a chaotic day of fighting, Gary was shot; the bullet pierced his helmet, but miraculously didn’t enter his head. “We were in close combat. The first three of us in the very front were overwhelmed. We called in the helicopter gunships for assistance.” But the gunships couldn’t distinguish allies from enemies. Gary was treated in field hospitals for a head injury and eventually returned to light duty. On his helmet he took a marker and wrote a phrase from Psalm 23 that circles the hole in his helmet: “For Thou Art With Me.”
His mother had given him a rosary to take with him to Vietnam. He didn’t think much about it, until he escaped death. “You rely on God; in the worst of times we turn to our faith.” Years later, when his mother was dying, he told her how much he appreciated the faith she demonstrated. She responded, “Honey, don’t think you ever wear your faith on your sleeve. You have to work at it every day of your life.”
Veterans returning home from war in Vietnam were advised to “shut up, don’t say anything,” said Gary, the recipient of two Purple Hearts. “It was felt to be an unjust war. It was the first time people held it against the people who served their country.”
Still, he was grateful. “I got to come home in one piece, physically … I had a moral responsibility to come back and never take for granted how lucky I was, how blessed I was.” But buried inside of him was this “thing called survivor’s guilt.” Every April 16 (the day his platoon sergeant died trying to rescue him) Gary pauses to remember the sergeant. “I remember him on other days, too.”
For 20 years Gary didn’t talk about his war experiences. Then, in 1987, he saw the movie “Platoon” with his parents and his wife. “That opened up 20 years of pent-up memories.” He still doesn’t know why his life was spared but he looks to his wife, Mary, their children and grandchildren, and thinks, “They are a big part of the reason why I was supposed to come back.”
In 2001, his siblings began volunteer work in Haiti, which has evolved into ServeHAITI, an all-volunteer organization committed to working in solidarity with the people of Grand-Bois, Haiti. Liz McDermott, one of Gary’s sisters, encouraged him to share his gifts in financial management with the Haitians. That was five years ago. He’s returned several times a year since then, most recently in June.
The Haitians, who struggle to survive day by day, have a faith that inspires Gary. He shows a photograph of a young girl standing in the doorway of her family’s tiny shack. Above the doorway of the blue-painted shack are inscribed the words: Psalm 23. “I saw that and I thought, ‘Oh my God,’” Gary recalls. “Psalm 23 has been a huge part of my life.” He treasures a reproduction of the photo that Liz presented to him.
“I really believe that’s another reason why I survived. Very seldom in our lives can we go to a country and become a part of the people’s lives and become part of their history. I did in Vietnam. You live with that your whole life. Now I’m in another country (Haiti) becoming friends with the people in their country.” It’s like an antidote to the Vietnam experience, he says.
“Every time I come home (from Haiti) I just realize how blessed we are in this country. We have a safety net here. It needs to be fixed, but we have a safety net. If you have enough food to eat, clothing to wear and a roof over your head, you are among the wealthiest 10 percent of people in the world.”
Gary says his experience on a journey of faith “has never been perfect … you lose it. You look for the motivation to get it back.”