As Us

A Space for Women of the World

Billey Dooley

Walking Into Darkness 

A Soldier’s Story

I.

I would like to introduce myself. My name is Ron Gnorwenog. I was born into a good, country family in Dickson, Tennessee. My dad was a military man, as was his father. So wanting to please my dad, when I turned eighteen, I went to the post office to sign up for the draft. Then one day, I was out working in the high cotton thinking about how at twenty-one I could legally drink a beer. As I turned back to go into the direction of the house, I saw my dad walking towards me. Something was not right. My dad always walked with his head held straight up. But his head was down and moving from side to side. I ran to him as fast as I could. When I reached him, I asked, “Dad, what’s wrong?” He just reached into his back pocket and pulled out a letter. I took it and read, “You have been drafted into the UNITED STATES ARMY.”

I immediately felt that I wanted to go to Canada like a lot of other people. But dad was a military man, so I thought now it’s my turn to serve this great nation. Plus, I will see the world and earn money for college, which would take a lot of burden off my parents—not to mention that women love a man in uniform. Further, to tell the truth, farming is all right. But waking up early in morning, feeding the animals, bailing hay, and picking cotton until sundown gets tiresome. That night mom was upset, but trying not to show it. Dad was storytelling about his days in the military and offering me advice. “Look out for snakes in the ranks.” And most importantly, “Keep your head down, and come back alive.”

II.

As it turns out, getting drafted was not as bad as getting your mom to let go of you. But eventually Dad pried Mom off me, and into the car I went on the long ride to the bus station. We lived ten miles out of town, and good ol’ dad talked the whole way. Some things I can remember, some I cannot. We pulled up to the bus station, which was filled with boys my age and a little older, moms and girlfriends crying, and dads shaking hands with their sons. Now it was my turn to say goodbye to Dad, and maybe a tear rolled down my cheek. The station manager yelled out that the bus was ready to go, so everyone must get aboard. By the time that I got on the bus, the only seat open was in the very back, but that was all right with me. Everyone continued to wave goodbye until the bus got on the main road.

The ride was a long, hot, and tiresome. The bus was full of guys saying, “I cannot wait for the next stop.”

“I am going to Canada, just like those longhaired hippies.”

I sat there and thought they could read my mind. But I could not bring myself to run to Canada. What could I tell my family? The bus finally made a stop a couple of towns later, so that everyone could get food and water. And sure enough, some guys were on the phone trying to get their friends or girlfriends to come get them.

III.

But when we arrived at Fort Gordon, Georgia, every seat was full. The bus pulled through the front gate, and you could see men running and marching. Then the bus finally came to a stop, and a guy told everyone to get off and line up, so we did.

Then out of nowhere this giant came around and yelled for everyone to stand straight, chest out, arms at our sides. This guy stood at least 7 feet tall and 6 feet wide. I stood at 5 feet 5 inches tall and was thin as a beanpole. The guy seemed to yell just to be yelling, “Welcome to Fort Gordon, Georgia, 82nd Airborne! You came here a boy, and you will leave a man!”

I thought I should have made for Canada like those other guys. But when the men told us to march into the hospital tent, we all did—only to discover that it was not only a hospital tent, but also a barbershop.

The barber asked us to sit down and “how would we like our hair done?” But he was laughing the whole time as he shaved our heads bald.

The next part was a dental check and measuring our height and weight. Then the sergeant at the door told everyone to step through and stay in a single file line. Not bad until I stepped into the room and two nurses—one on each arm—held a syringe full of something. And then bang! They gave us each a shot. By the time it was over, I swear I had twenty different shots—ten in each arm.

Then everyone marched to the barracks. We each were assigned a bunk to sleep in, but first we had to learn how to make the bed correctly. After about twenty attempts, everyone finally got it right. It seemed like I had just closed my eyes, and the giant was already yelling for everyone to get outside on the double. Everyone jumped up and ran outside. The giant was telling everyone to line up single file, shortest to tallest. Of course me being the shortest one in the group, I was first one the giant saw. The giant said, “My name is Sargent David T. O’Malley. Welcome to the 82nd Airborne. You will learn combat training and how to jump out of C-131 airplanes. Plus, you will learn to fire a M-16 semi automatic machine gun. But right now, you will learn to think and move as one unit. Drop and give me fifty pushups.”

And sure enough, every day we ran for miles over obstacles that seemed to never end. I thought about Canada a lot of the time, but still could not bring myself to do it. I got good at hand-to-hand combat and became a good marksman. I became a lean 5 foot 5 inch fighting machine and was placed into Special Forces.

III.

It was a nice sunny day, and Sargent O’Malley gave us the day off. Some of the guys were playing cards and writing letters home when everyone heard the sound of a Chinook helicopter coming in for a landing. We looked at each other and registered as a unit that something was not right. Sure enough, the giant, Sargent O’Malley, stormed in with a look that could freeze a freight train at full throttle. Everyone immediately rushed into a single file line—and you guessed it—I was the first one again. Then the sergeant gave us the news of our life. “Today all of you are going to Vietnam.”

We packed our bags, got aboard the Chinook helicopter, and off to Vietnam we went. The ride was a long one, and we had to change helicopters and then to board a C-131 cargo plane.

When we arrived in Vietnam, we were told that we had a night jump, and everything was going to be dumped with us. Once over the jump site, we got into single file, and you got it, I got to be first. So out of the plane I went, pulled my parachute, and thankfully landed safely. Once everyone and everything was on the ground, we all moved as one to the basecamp. On the way, we heard gunshots to the east of our position. Then suddenly, the sky lit up as if it were daytime. We all dove to the ground, grateful that the grass was pretty high. When the light died, we jumped up and ran like a deer from a hunter. We moved throughout the night and ended up at the basecamp about noon.

IV.

The camp was pretty small, but well fortified, and the guys already stationed there seemed to get a kick out of us new guys. But the newness wore off soon as we went on a recon mission that night to see where the North Vietnamese were hiding. I was so glad that the sergeant had made us run so much and do all those pushups. I saw first hand what a bullet does to a person’s head. As we were rounding a bend in the road, the guy next to me got shot in his head by a bullet, which went right through his helmet. We all scattered like roaches when the light comes on.

The next thing we knew, bullets poured down like rain, and we dug in deep. The V.C. were up on the ridge about 4 clicks out. So we crawled back into the woods and regrouped as Jim and Mike dragged Steve, the guy with the bullet in the head—or anyway, what was left of it. We called for an air assault to assist us to overtake the ridge. The next thing that occurred was a Cherokee helicopter came overhead and sent enough missiles that V.C. ran into their tunnels. By that time, we had got to the top of the ridge. Everyone was exhausted, but we made foxholes by digging holes in the ground. Then we put sandbags around the holes. Everybody got a turn watching out for the V.C. or N.V.C., and thankfully, we all got some sleep. But as the sun came up, we could see body parts all around us.

V.

Then came reinforcement, which meant time for us to keep moving. Sargent O’Malley got us into single file line. Again, I got to be first. He told us that we had new orders. It seemed that the N.V.C. were getting their weapons along the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail. So everyone loaded up with ammunition and rations, and we moved out at 1800 hrs.

As we marched off into the darkness on the new order to find the supply line, Jim was “point,” so he was approximately100 yards ahead of the rest of us. We arrived at the trail and moved slowly along. Jim gave us the hold up, so we got to the side of the trail. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. It was an ambush. We fired every direction that we saw muzzle flashes or a tracer round come from.

Sargent O’Malley took a bullet in the leg, but lucky it was just a “clean through” and didn’t strike anything vital. Jim took a bullet in the side that hit something bad. He was pouring blood like a broken water main. I called for the medic to do something, anything, just stop the bleeding. David had his M-16 trained on the trail. Every time that the N.V.C. or V.C. would pop up, David would shoot. Some he hit; some he missed.

The Sergeant gave me a motion to come over to him, so I began to crawl towards him. When I reached him, I said, “Yes, Sergeant.”

He said, “Look, there is a tunnel opening about five yards out. I need you to get into it. See if you can get around this, so we can get a crossfire going.”

Now I really wished that I had fled for Canada, but Sargent needed me to be a soldier, so I said “Yes, Sir. I am on it, Sir.”

The next thing I knew, I was inside the tunnel. I pulled out my service revolver and pointed it straight out in front of me. I slowed down my breathing and inched forward in the tunnel. I could not see my hand in front of my face, but I continued to move. When I heard voices above me, I stopped. Inside, I was shaking like a maple leaf in a hurricane. But I was nevertheless in training mode, preparing myself to engage the enemy.

I felt a ladder rung, so I began to ascend up. Then I heard footsteps, so I stopped. I was concerned that the enemy would open the hatch and find me. Everything seemed to move in slow motion as I moved the M.C.T. up. I could see the N.V.C had their backs to me, so I filled them full of holes. Then I was able to move forward. The camp was empty, so I grabbed maps and anything that looked important.

Over the radio, I said, “This is the tunnel guy, Sargent. I am in the enemy’s camp. It’s empty. Where are you? Over.”

They radioed back, “We’re right outside the perimeter fence line. Where the hell did the enemy go? Over.”

“The only ones in the camp were the ones I shot, Sargent. Over.”

Then everyone was together. Sergeant, leaning on a makeshift crutch, said, “Burn everything to the ground, and destroy ammo and weapons.”

By morning everything was burned and destroyed. The Sargent had us fall into line. He told us due to the information that we gained and the firefight, everyone would receive a medal.

VI.

Shortly thereafter, we got a new sergeant and off to the bush we went. That’s when I met George. George replaced Jim in our unit, and our friendship began. I told George that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back out into the brush anymore. I had killed so many N.V.C and V.C. that they all seemed to blend into one. That’s when George introduced me to my first shot of opium.

The opium took every feeling away and simultaneously made me feel like I had so much energy that I could run around the world and back. We were two opium addicts running wild in a country filled with opium.

One day, Sergeant called, “Everyone to fall into line. We’re moving out. And by the way, Ron Gnorwenog, your new mission is tunnel rat.”

I said, “Sir, yes, sir. Permission to speak, sir.”

“Permission granted.”

“Thank you for this position. But do you really think I’m up for this?”

Sergeant replied, “You have been in more tunnels than anyone, and I trust you.”

I said, “Thank you, sir. I will make you proud.”

So for the next four years, during the day, I went back to the brush and climbed into tunnel after tunnel, and during the night, I went back to the opium to keep the demons away. Sometimes my own people almost shot me, as they would change the passcode word while I was away in some tunnel.

During that time, I came across enough opium to kill an elephant, but I only took enough to stay well and make sure that George and I did not run out.

Then one day on recon, George and I got ambushed. George took a bullet to the face that exited the back of his head. As for me, I took six bullets: two in the right leg, two in the right side, one in the back, and one in the left shoulder. This gave me a free ride back to the States and more medals for valor. I may have been shot, but I never felt the pain thanks to the opium that I was on.

VII.

Coming home was not what I thought it would be. I was called a “baby killer” and told that I fought in an unjust war. Protesters everywhere made feel angry and that everything I went through was for nothing. Some people were crying, “Free love! Stop the war! Sexual revolution!”

Everyone was doing drugs and smoking a lot of marijuana. Then, I found my drug—heroin—and I was all strung out again. I thought, “I’m used to living in the bush, so why not live on the street?” No bills to pay, and I had a military pension. Why not just stay high and live the way I wanted?

But all good things must come to an end. At the Veteran Hospital, they told me that I had cancer as a result of all the Agent Orange that America dumped on Vietnam. Knowing that my time was now shortened, it seemed that numbing myself was the best that I could do. This is the Darkness that only a soldier knows.

VIIII.

People don’t know the pain and suffering that is inside soldiers who come home alone and strung out—even me, the close friend and relative in God who laid this man, Ron Gnorwenog, to rest. When you see a vet on the streets, please lend a hand or an ear.

Billy Dooley is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

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