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‘It’s still painful’

Sleepy Eye man was wounded three times in Vietnam; still carries shrapnel in his face, PTSD

By Scott Thoma

Pointing to the right side of his jaw where a fragment of shrapnel still rests 54 years later, Jerry Piehl describes the horrors of war.

Staff Sergeant Gerald Piehl, U.S. Army, with some of the medals he received during his military duty, including one of his three Purple Hearts. Photo by Scott Thoma

The Sleepy Eye resident received three Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, and an Air Medal during his time as a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army while serving his country in the Vietnam War.

“We were looking for enemy soldiers and a Claymore mine that was left behind detonated and shrapnel went everywhere,” Piehl said, explaining how the shrapnel got lodged in his jaw. “When I went to the dentist a few years ago, he took x-rays and thought there was another tooth in there, but it was the shrapnel.”

Including that first injury, Piehl was struck by shrapnel on three separate occasions during his time in the Vietnam War, receiving a Purple Heart each time.

The Purple Heart is a military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. military. It is the oldest military award still being given to U.S. military members.

Upon returning home from his military duty, Piehl had difficulty reminiscing about his experiences during the war.

“I didn’t talk about it for a long time,” he said. “It wasn’t until a few years ago that I told my story. It’s still painful, though.”

He also admits to having PTSD that causes him to have nightmares and extreme mood swings.

Piehl graduated from Sleepy Eye High School in 1962 and worked at various jobs. When it came time for draft into the Vietnam War, Piehl was considered obese and failed his physical three times before the draft board in New Ulm.

Jerry Piehl, Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army

“I figured they wouldn’t consider drafting me anymore and I needed to lose some weight anyway, so I went on a diet,” he said with a wry smile. “I lost about 50 pounds and felt a lot better.”

While working as a bartender in the liquor store in Sleepy Eye one day, the head of the Brown County Draft Board that had previously denied Piehl’s entrance into military duty because of his weight, patronized the business.

“She thought I looked familiar and asked me who I was,” said Piehl. “After I gave her my name and she saw that I had lost weight, she had me come down for another physical on February 7, 1968. I passed the physical that time and was sent out right away.”

Piehl was assigned to Fort Campbell, Ky, for basic training. After eight weeks there, he spent another eight weeks of “advanced training” at Fort Polk, LA.

“I got to go home for two weeks after that,” he said. “Then I was sent to NCO (non-commissioned officer school) in Fort Benning, GA (now named Fort Moore) and I spent 12 weeks there being trained by Army Rangers to be a squad leader.”

After eight additional weeks of training in Fort Lewis, WA, Piehl was off to Vietnam on Dec. 15, 1968. He was assigned to the 1st Calvary Division Airmobile Company A and stationed in Vinh Long Province.

“My first real action came on Good Friday in 1969,” Piehl said. “Five men in our troop were mortared. Two of them died and the other three were wounded but were able to crawl back into our camp.”

That was when Piehl had shrapnel hit the right side of his face, leaving the aforementioned piece lodged in his jaw.

“It was very hot there and I thought I was sweating a lot,” Piehl said. “When I went to wipe the sweat off, I saw that it was blood.”

In a bunker, Staff Sergeant Piehl held a tourniquet to one of the men’s leg all night until they could get him to an Army hospital the next morning. Because Piehl and the injured soldier had the same blood type, a transfusion was done right in the bunker.

This postcard was sent by Jerry Piehl to his mother upon hearing the news that he was getting to come home from the war. Photo by Scott Thoma

“A helicopter picked the injured solider up the following morning but I never heard if he made it or not,” Piehl said.

On June 5, 1969, Piehl was on combat patrol with his unit when enemy fire rained upon them, killing several men. With adrenaline taking over, Staff Sergeant Piehl took over an M-60 machine gun and began firing into the darkness.

“I couldn’t see where any of the (enemy soldiers) were, but I just shot all around,” he recalled. “They stopped firing at us after that and we were able to get some of our wounded to safety.”

Piehl was able to locate and retrieve several injured soldiers and bring them to a safe location.

For his efforts in that encounter, Piehl received the Silver Star from the U.S. Army for “gallantry in action while engaged in a military operation involving conflict with an armed, hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam. Staff Sergeant Piehl distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous action while serving as a platoon sergeant during a combat operation in Ya Ninh Province, Republic of Vietnam.”

The second time Piehl was wounded was when he and others in his troop were at a Michelin rubber plantation.

“We were making sure the Vietnamese people were cleared out of the area and one night we noticed smoke at the plantation, even though no one was supposed to be there,” said Piehl. “There was a sniper sitting in a rubber tree. He fired a B-40 rocket at us and I was wounded in the right shoulder. To this day, I won’t buy Michelin tires.”

The Avenue of Flags at Home Cemetery dedicated to local veterans was started by Jerry and Robin Piehl in 1984. Contributed photo

Piehl was wounded a third time on Labor Day in 1969 when an explosive device hidden in a 100-pound bag of rice detonated and “about 50 pieces of shrapnel” sprayed over Piehl’s hands and lower arms.

When Piehl finally was able to return home he worked construction for a time. When his father, Joe, passed away in 1976, he took over Piehl’s Produce in Sleepy Eye for 19 years.

To honor veterans, Piehl and his wife, Robin, started the Avenue of Flags in Home Cemetery in Sleepy Eye in 1984. When the first flags were flown on Memorial Day in 1986, there were 25 flapping in the breeze. Today, there are 420.

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