November 11, 2003
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
Bill Schiebler of Eden Prairie is a grandfather, marriage counselor and multiple sclerosis sufferer. But before he was any of those things, he was an Army lieutenant in Vietnam, a member of the "Screaming Eagles" Airborne Division and one of just four Airborne Rangers in a unit of 186 who survived a horrendous five-month stint in Vietnam.
Of those four, says Schiebler, one has died, two suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome so deeply they can't hold down jobs, and then there's Schiebler. He claims to be the worst of the bunch.
But on Monday, Schiebler, now 62, was hailed by his state and nation as a hero. With about 40 friends and family members in attendance, he was awarded a Bronze Star of Valor by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
It was a star due to him almost three decades ago, but the award got lost in paperwork, military bureaucracy and a friend's death.
Schiebler received the medal, in part, for rescuing a friend stranded behind enemy lines in November 1965. That friend recommended him for the honor. But the medal arrived in the late 1990s when his friend was ill, and the award ended up in the man's attic until the widow finally found it and returned it to the Pentagon.
At a state Capitol ceremony Monday, Schiebler's wife pinned the long overdue star on his chest at last.
During the war, Schiebler did more than just survive. He survived with memories and stories that still humble and frighten listeners today.
He bore witness to one of the infamous battles of the early Vietnam War, that of Ia Drang Valley. It earned its moniker of Valley of Death in late 1965, when U.S. soldiers were dropped into a clearing and quickly outnumbered fourfold by North Vietnamese soldiers. Schiebler still recalls the sounds of dying American boys calling for their mothers to come save them — but no one could.
He did save the life of one man he was tempted to kill — a wounded North Vietnamese soldier he found during a late-night hike. The man's feet were worn to a bloody pulp and he could walk no more.
"I had a very rapid feeling of hatred for this guy. I, at first, entertained the thought of letting him have a bullet and that would be it," said Schiebler, a voluble storyteller. "But then, I remembered the wonderful advice my grandfather had given to me and I stopped."
The advice: Be kind to your enemies. Just remember God loves them as much as he does you.
So he carried the man across his back for miles to take him to medics. The man on his back started weeping, Schiebler said, so he gave him a nudge of reassurance.
"This fellow started kissing me on the back of my neck," said Schiebler. He later learned it was a sign of friendship. That soldier, it turned out, was sergeant major — the highest-ranking prisoner captured at the time, he said.
Schiebler left Vietnam having killed more than 250 enemy soldiers before he stopped counting. He also came home with wounds that earned him four Purple Hearts.
Once he was back, he became one of the first military people to speak out against the war, he said.
He was at a Rotary Club luncheon and he spoke of his concerns that "we're going at this war the wrong way." A short time later, he was stopped by two military police vehicles and put under house arrest. He learned one cannot talk about military policy while in uniform.
He ended up in the office of a full colonel, who chewed him out, but ultimately let him go.
These days, Schiebler said, he wants military folks to know there are
people back home supporting them. Write to a National Guard member, he
implores — they'll love a letter from home.
Copyright © 2003, Pioneer Press