A local veteran's story of service.
Jerry Piehl has a tale about how his service in the U.S. Army began during the Vietnam War. For a couple years, he’d reported to the draft board in New Ulm, but couldn’t pass the physical because he needed to lose weight. Piehl said he also wanted to lose weight and finally did. At the time he worked a few hours a week bartending at East Side Liquor. One day, two ladies came in and ordered drinks. One of them asked Piehl his name. He told her and asked her name. He recognized her name—she was the head of the Brown County Draft Board.
“Nothing was said, but she knew I’d failed the physical before and could see I’d lost weight,” explained Piehl. “I soon got another draft notice. I reported, passed the physical, got inducted and was sent directly to basic training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.” That was in February of 1968.
Piehl’s next stop was Fort Polk in Louisiana, followed by a two-week leave at home. He was selected for non-commissioned officers school, held at Fort Benning in Georgia, where he became a squad leader. Next he was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington. He had another two week leave at home before heading to Fort Ord in California and then to Vietnam.
“I went to Vietnam on Dec. 15, 1968 and served there for one year,” said Piehl. He was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, Alpha Company.
Piehl had another tale, this one about the small world we live in. “One time in Vietnam, I was told to get the Catholic guys together because a priest was coming to say Mass and give Communion,” Piehl said. “His name was Fr. Black and he asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, he said he had a cousin in Sleepy Eye!” (The cousin was Mrs. Huberty, said Piehl.)
Piehl received three Purple Hearts, given to those wounded in combat, because he was hit by shrapnel three times in Vietnam. “The first was when I was hit in the mouth. That happened on Good Friday. The second time I was hit in the right shoulder while we were at a Michelin rubber plant and the third happened around Labor Day. I was hit in my lower left arm and hand,” he said. Each of those connections—Good Friday, any mention of Michelin tires, and Labor Day—continue to remind Piehl of his time in Vietnam.
Piehl was also awarded a Silver Star Medal for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States, a Combat Infantry Badge, a Bronze Star, an Air Medal and various unit citations. He has a framed display of his awards and unit insignia.
When Piehl returned from his service in Vietnam he worked road construction for several years and then, when his dad died in 1976, took over Piehl’s Produce operating the business for 19 years.
During this time is when Piehl became involved in local veterans groups. “Around 1978, I joined the rifle squad that served at veterans funerals,” he said. This group became the Sleepy Eye Honor Guard and Piehl remains a member to this day. Over the years he was part of the firing squad and carried flags, but can no longer manage the walking involved.
Piehl is also known for his work with the Avenue of Flags.
“Around 1984 we started planning the Veterans Memorial Garden and Avenue of Flags in Home Cemetery,” he said. “The first flags were flown for Memorial Day in 1986, there were 25 flags.”
Today there are 413 flags in the Avenue of Flags. Piehl coordinates the project and calls for volunteers when they are displayed. This happens on Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day—all weather permitting and if enough volunteers can be found. Piehl said there is display board at the Servicemen’s Club that lists all the names of the deceased veterans honored by a flag.
Asked why he’s given time to the Honor Guard and Avenue of Flags, Piehl had a simple answer. “I’m proud to be a veteran and to be involved in veterans functions,” he said “and I’m proud to honor other veterans.”