Iowa State Memorial Union

Galen Grethen - Private First Class

Rank: Private First Class
Date Of Birth: : Feb 17, 1943
Date Of Death: Apr 16, 1966
War / Conflict: Vietnam
Hometown: Emmetsburg, Iowa
Gold Star Hall - Wall Location: Northeast Wall (by Entrance Door)
Service Ribbons Awarded:
  • Bronze Star with V (for valor)
  • Purple Heart


Galen Dean Grethen was born February 17, 1943 in Emmetsburg, Iowa, to Earl and Romola Grethen. His peers described him as likable, pleasant and quiet with a friendly smile. Growing up an only child, Galen spent much of his time helping his dad at the family’s Conoco Station on Main Street.

Throughout school, Galen and his friends lived in the moment. They spent their free time going to cottages in Okoboji, attending drive-in movies, cruising around in their parents’ cars, and playing cards on summer nights.

After graduating Emmetsburg High School with his class of 42 students, Galen enrolled at Iowa State University in the fall of 1961, becoming the first person in his family to go to college. During his second year, Galen joined the ROTC, finding it very meaningful. He joined Pershing Rifles, which is a military fraternal organization dedicated to military drill, and dedicated himself to the group’s tradition of being professional, disciplined, and dedicated. Ever the sharp dresser, Galen took pride in the crisp creases and polished boots of the Pershing Rifles as they served as regulation and exhibition drill teams, color guards, and honor guards. Galen attended Iowa State for two years, and then attended Mankato State in Minnesota for another semester, but he didn’t enjoy college classes the way he enjoyed ROTC. He decided to take a different path, and enlisted in the Army in Minneapolis.

Despite protests from his parents, Galen chose to be a combat medic and paratrooper, one of the most dangerous ways to serve. Galen always had an interest in the medical profession, and hoped to study to become a psychiatrist after the war. He had a true passion for healing others, which was often expressed in letters he wrote to parents throughout his military service.

Galen was a considerate man who admired and respected his parents, always looking out for them. While in Vietnam, Galen saved the money he earned in the Army and regularly sent money orders home to be put in his savings account. He wrote to his dad, “If something happens to me, you can make use of the money.” Additionally, he took out an extra life insurance policy shortly before induction. His father objected, but Galen did it anyway, explaining that he wanted to return some of the help he received from his parents while he was in college.

After completing a six-month tour of duty in the Dominican Republic, Galen returned home for a 20-day leave from his base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. While there, Galen’s unit received a Presidential Citation. His battalion had the longest period of duty and faced the most hostile forces “with least casualties.” Galen received the combat Medic Award Badge and the United States Expeditionary Forces Medal. Galen left Emmetsburg for the last time on December 17, 1965. He was scheduled to return to the states the following Christmas, but he wouldn’t make it through the spring.

In Vietnam, Private First Class Galen D. Grethen was assigned to unit HHC, 2nd Battalion (BN), 502 ND Infantry, 101st Airborne Division (ABN DIV), United States Army Republic of Vietnam (USARV). Galen experienced some of the horror and violence of the Vietnam war firsthand. After one firefight in March of 1966, he wrote a letter to his parents, describing the brutal battle and the medical services he performed. That letter is currently on display on Galen’s table in Gold Star Hall and can be viewed after the ceremony.

The last letter Galen wrote to his parents on April 11, 1966, five days before his death, reads as follows:

            "Dear Mom and Dad,

Just received your letter, the one you wrote the 5th saying you got my film. It may be a long time before I send another incident to you. We are at Phan Thiet. I have enclosed a map showing its location. Also, I have enclosed my orders for the Combat Medic Badge again. They didn’t list me under 2nd Award as they should have.

We are still at our Base camp at Phan Thiet, but one platoon is moving out tonight, so I would imagine we will move within the next two days. We are the first American Troops to operate in this sector, so we don’t know what we are facing.

             Love, Galen"

While serving as an army medical corpsman in Phan Thiet, South Vietnam, Galen died on April 16, 1966. Galen’s platoon was moving out on a trail in combat formation, when the point man was wounded by unexpected fire from the enemy. Galen saw that the man was injured and immediately ran toward him to attend his wounds. As he ran forward, Galen was taken under fire by another undetected enemy emplacement, but he continued to treat his fellow soldier. As Galen was carrying the soldier to safety, he was mortally shot by an enemy automatic rifle. He was 23 years old.

After his death, Galen was awarded the Purple Heart for “wounds received in action resulting in his death.” Additionally, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his heroism and great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle.

Galen’s memory continues on as a courageous, brave and devoted man who died trying to save his fellow soldiers. He is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Emmetsburg, Iowa in Palo Alto County. 

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