Wechsler, like his captain, was unaware that an Iraqi pilot was flying directly for them in a French-built Dassault Mirage F1 armed with 1,500-pound Exocet missles. The time was about 8 p.m. May 17, there in the Persian Gulf.
The Iraqi’s deadly intent was detected by an AWACS plane on patrol nearby. The Iraqi was flying 5,000 feet above the water at 550 mph.
The USS Stark was warned when the enemy was about 200 miles out. The jet came within view just before 10 p.m. off the Stark’s port side.
Two radio messages from the Stark were sent requesting identification, but the Iraqi pilot ignored the signals.
Instead, two missiles were fired: one from 22 miles away and a second from 15 miles. Then the Iraqi pilot banked and withdrew.
The crew of the Stark only had seconds warning that they were under fire.
The first missile swiftly came in 10 feet about the sea and struck the port side hull near the bridge, failed to detonate but ignited, causing a large fire which spread through the ship’s post office, store room and combat operations center.
The second missile struck the port side, as well, and exploded, leaving a 10-by-15-foot hole.
Sadly, 29 men were killed in the fire and explosion, eight sailors died later of wounds and 21 others were wounded, including Wechsler, who had received missile shrapnel in his right hip.
And two of 37 men were lost at sea.
The incident went down in history as the first anti-ship missile attack on a U.S. Navy warship.
Little did Wechsler know that he would have a second battle later in life to rightfully attain recognition for his service.
“I was 20 years old when it happened. I’m almost 45, now,” he told family, friends and county officials at the Live Oak County Courthouse Friday.
The occasion was the end of a long battle to receive his well-earned Purple Heart.
Wechsler said being awarded the medal didn’t seem important after the missile attack and years following.
“I’m older, wiser. This award was put in place by George Washington for a reason,” he said. He added he needed to have his medals for his kids.
A couple of years ago, Wechsler set out in earnest to get the medal he so deserved.
He described a nightmare of red tape and paperwork. He would send his information to one department, be transferred to another and then transferred to yet another. And this scenario would go on and on.
Then he would come full circle back to the point he began. But the personnel there would have changed and would not know anything about his quest. He had to start over.
Meanwhile, his fellow crew members continued to ask him that important question.
“A lot of friends kept asking, ‘Did you get it? Did you get it?’ Now, I will be able to tell them,” he said.
Wechsler finally resorted to going to one of the people who vote in Congress to fund the military: U.S. Congressman Ruben Hinojosa.
Within a matter of weeks, Wechsler’s quest for the medal he earned was granted.
“I’m not the only one who was overlooked,” he said. He added that there are probably thousands who have not received their Purple Hearts.
Prior to being presented his Purple Heart by U.S. Rep. Hinojosa’s deputy district director Chris Garcia, the Live Oak County Commissioners Court unanimously adopted a resolution honoring Wechsler for his service.
The resolution declared Friday, May 11, as Richard Warren Wechsler Day in Live Oak County.
Wechsler also was sent other medals he earned:
National Defense Service Medal, Navy Expeditionary Medal, Navy Marksmanship Pistol Ribbon, Navy Reserve Meritorious Service Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon and the Navy Discharge Lapel Button.
In a letter from U.S. Rep. Hinojosa, the congressman wrote, “We will always give assistance to veterans.”
County Judge Jim Huff told Wechsler, “ We want to assure you of how proud we are of our veterans. The county is grateful for your service.”
Now, Weshsler plans to go to a reunion in Mayport, Fla., on May 17 (25 years since the attack), where he can tell his friends he finally was awarded the Purple Heart.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “I get a little emotional.”