WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – A Wichita veteran signed up for the National Guard because he knew the draft notice was coming.
Ron Bales is a self-taught artist and bought his first pinstriping brush in 1964.
He said then life happened, and for him, that came in the form of a tour of duty.
“Nobody comes back like they went,” Vietnam Veteran Ron Bales said.
Bales was a ground pounder.
“There’s those boots, and there’s that cross,” Bales said.
He said the the cross necklace was around his neck every time he took a chopper ride to the bush.
“I got to sit in the door with my feet out on the skid, with someone hanging on the back of me, so I didn’t fall out,” Bales said.
He was an infantryman with the 101st.
“You walk,” Bales said.
He said they were packing quite the loads, too.
“Carrying a first aid kid, a bayonet, two smoke grenades,” Bales said.
Their rucksacks weighed 150 pounds, and he was also carrying 19 canteens of water.
“We were humping in the jungle, and they called a break, and that is flop time,” Bales said.
He said breaks didn’t happen very often, and that was unfortunate for his comrades, like one soldier nicknamed, ‘Tiny’, who one time stepped in a large hole and couldn’t get out.
“Two of us come along and grabbed the back of his rucksack straps and picked him up, got him back on his feet, and away we went,” Bales said.
He said along the way they would often find the enemies food supply.
“One platoon watched and the other pulled the garden up and smashed the fence,” Bales said.
He said during that process, they would often come across pigs, so one time they decided to roast one, and then fire erupted.
“They took bush and the guy that got shot, that’s it lifting off and then it came up over me,” Bales said.
He said the soldiers had to be on the lookout, constantly.
“There’s a tower by the beach,” Bales said.
They were positioned just off the China Sea.
“We guarded that beach, nothing got on that beach,” Bales said.
He said they were also tasked with rebuilding the place, from bunkers and beyond.
Bales said one very early morning stands out in his mind.
“Grab your stuff, get out there to the helicopter pad,” Bales said.
He said there were many times they could see the flares flying, and that caused their leaders to have an interesting debate.
“Whether we are going to helicopter out there, and land and fight our way in, or land inside and fight our way out,” Bales said.
He said that was just a typical night in Vietnam.
“It was home sweet home,” Bales said.
He said he was just thankful to have a hooch.
“A roof and a floor and a real Army cot, and out of the rain,” Bales said.
He said they were constantly building things, like trip wires, to protect the place.
“So if anyone touches it, it lights up,” Bales said. “It’s to slow Charlie down.”
He said that was the mission no matter where they were in Vietnam, and he still has many things he held on to, like coins and a watch.
He said the time he spent in the jungle forever changed him.
“Glad it’s over,” Bales said.
When he returned, he wanted to pick up his pinstriping and go back to school, but he said he was quickly met by a student who didn’t approve of him honoring his draft card.
“She says I understand you just got back from Vietnam, and I said, ‘yea I did,’ she stepped forward one step and spit right in my face,” Bales said.
He said unfortunately that was the case for many of the thousands, who were fortunate to even make it back.
He said for many guys in his photos, their time in war, was only their first fight to survive.
Bales is a thyroid cancer survivor, and his doctors attribute that to his exposure to agent orange.
He said it cost him $44 a month for a pill that helps him stay alive.