Veteran Charles “Rex” Gruber loves the staff at the Omaha VA.

“Words cannot express how I feel,” Gruber said. “I probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for these people.”

Coming from a Marine Corps Veteran who was shot three times in two separate combat incidents during the Korean War, it’s clear Gruber means what he says.

Smallest Marine, biggest weapon

Gruber never expected to fight in a war.

Placing Marine Corps wreath

Born in tiny Union, Nebraska, he joined the Marine Corps in 1948.

“I was 17,” he said. “My mother had to sign for me. They sent me to Camp Pendleton where I joined Dog Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. They gave me the biggest weapon in the Marines because I was the smallest guy in the Marines. I was given the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR.”

When Gruber’s unit arrived off the coast of Korea, the war was already in its second month, and things were not going well for the American forces and their allies. Surrounded by enemy forces, the coalition troops were desperately attempting to hold on until reinforcements could arrive.

Despite the grimness of the situation ashore, Gruber and his fellow Marines were surprised by the reception they received. “The Army had a band out playing for us when we arrived,” he said. “We thought, ‘Is there a war going on here?’ The band guys were just really happy to see us.”

Shot twice in the leg

By August 1950, Gruber’s unit had reached the Nakdong River. Gruber and his fellow Marines were assigned with the task of taking and holding a hill that overlooked the river and a nearby village.

“My sergeant told me to take out the people firing at us,” he said. “I swung my BAR around to take them out.”

Before he was able to put his gun into action, Gruber was struck by a pair of bullets. “One went through my leg and another caught me at the front of the leg,” he added.

Stunned and bleeding, Gruber was moved down the hill toward a casualty collection point set up by medics. He lay down beneath the 100-degree sun, waiting for his turn to be looked at. “A war correspondent looked over at me and asked, ‘Soldier, are you hurt?’” he remembered.

Despite the pain and the heat, Gruber responded with his characteristic sense of humor. “No, I’m just resting.”

The frozen, chosen land at Wonsan

Gruber was soon evacuated to an Army hospital in Japan where he received medical treatment and physical therapy on his wounded leg. When he told a doctor he was getting better, he found himself on a ship headed back to Korea.

Now a member of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Gruber’s unit was assigned to participate in landings at Wonsan, an important port city on the eastern coast of North Korea.

On the evening of Nov. 27, Chinese divisions launched multiple attacks upon the 1st Marine Division.

Recuperating at mom’s house

The Marines went into the valley each morning in search of enemy ammunition and weapons.

One morning, as they went about their task, Gruber said he experienced a sudden hammer-like pain in his leg. He’d been shot again.

“I had a bullet go in the side of my foot that shattered the heal bone out of my foot,” he said. “And I remembered saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I couldn’t walk. I just fell down.”

His buddies dragged him back to their makeshift camp.

Back to the United States

Gruber once again underwent medical treatment and rehabilitation. Over the next year, he received medical treatment in Japan, Wake Island, Honolulu, California, and North Carolina before finally being medically discharged from the Marine Corps in February 1952.

In Omaha VA hospital for 10 weeks

Gruber settled back in Omaha where he eventually took a job with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. He later retired as a captain.

His experience with the VA hospital didn’t begin until 1960 when he severely injured his head while setting up a rink at the Omaha Civic Auditorium.

“They brought me here to the VA hospital,” he recalled. “I didn’t leave for another 10 weeks.”

Gruber has been seen numerous times at the Omaha VA. He’s witnessed many changes to hospital, including the construction of new patient rooms, outpatient clinics and the new Ambulatory Care Center that was completed in August 2020.

Contributed plaque for “expert medical care”

“The changes here have been incredible,” he said. “They have saved my life several times. I really wanted to recognize these people for the work they’re doing.”

So he had a special plaque created for his Omaha VA. It reads:

“This Award is given to the entire staff of the Omaha VA. Especially to the Primary Care Unit, the Red Clinic, the amazing Dr. Prescher, doctors, nurses and staff for their expert medical care of me and all Veterans. I am proud to call them my doctors and personal friends. Rex Gruber, always a Marine. Korean War – Frozen Chosen. God Bless You and America.”

By Kevin Hynes is a public affairs officer for the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System

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Published on Nov. 28, 2021

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