The Oklahoma National Guard's last Vietnam veteran is retiring this month after more than four decades dedicated to the Army, but he leaves behind a legacy that includes three generations.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Ronald Petty, 61, served in active duty, reserves and National Guard during his career. His son died in action in Iraq in 2004, and his grandson also has joined the Guard.
“His positive attitude and enthusiasm will be missed,” said Brig. Gen. Robbie Asher, chief of the Guard's joint staff. “Throughout his career, Chief Petty has always been a positive, proactive and highly professional soldier who never faced a challenge he could not overcome.”
The challenges began when Petty was still a teenager. The son of a World War II Navy veteran, Petty said he never meant to make a career of the military when he joined in 1969 at the age of 18.
“It was the G.I. Bill that got me to join,” Petty said. “I couldn't afford to go to college, and I wasn't really ready for college anyway.”
Petty knew he was likely headed for Vietnam, but he didn't even make it that far before he was picked for special duty.
“I remember stepping off the plane in Bangkok, Thailand, and everyone was being separated into two groups,” Petty said. “I assumed this was normal so I went where I was told to go. The next thing I know I am being recruited for special operations training.”
Petty, 5 feet 7 inches tall and 165 pounds, was selected for his slender build. He spent 16 months mostly in Cambodia as a member of 18-man unit working alongside their South Vietnamese counterparts to disrupt North Vietnamese traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
He and his team lived in the jungle, never eating or sleeping in the same place twice and relying on local scouts for their knowledge of the land.
“On patrol we would carry several hundred rounds of ammunition and two water canteens,” Petty said. “Thankfully, no one from my team was killed while we were over there. We still exchange Christmas cards and emails.”
After his tour, Petty went to college but stayed in the Army Reserves. The Army offered a good paycheck, but Petty still planned to leave the military behind after he began his civilian career.
Petty earned his managing and marketing degree before going back on active duty. In 1975, he joined the Guard. He got a civilian job working for an oil-field manufacturing company.
Twice Petty left the Guard, but he missed it and came back. He was among many Oklahomans who were suddenly out of work when the oil bust hit hard in the 1980s. Soldiering is a young man's game, Petty said, but the Guard offered a steady desk job.
He took a job in the Guard's personnel division at Camp Gruber, near Braggs. It was there that his sons grew up and later joined the Army themselves. The oldest, Eric, joined the active duty Army out of high school and had nearly 10 years in the service by the time the Iraq War started. He volunteered for deployment right as the war began and served as a cavalry scout.
Eric Petty and a group of his fellow soldiers were guarding a weapons cache south of Baghdad on May 3, 2004, when they came under attack from insurgents carrying small arms. He was killed in the battle a day before his 29th birthday.
It was a possibility Ronald Petty and his son talked about.
“I never discouraged him from doing the things he wanted to do, but I advised him to do other things,” Petty said. “I also know he wouldn't have been happy doing anything else.”
Ronald Petty said dealing with his son's death was understandably difficult, in part because Eric left behind a 9-year-old son, Colton.
“The casualties in this war are acceptable from a military standpoint,” Ronald Petty said. “It's nothing like Vietnam, where we were losing thousands of soldiers every year. But when it's your son, it's different.”
Eight years later, Colton is now 17. As Ronald Petty retires and prepares to travel and see family he hasn't visited in decades, he also will pass his experience on to the latest member of the family to volunteer for military service. Colton Petty has joined the Guard and will finish his advanced training after he graduates high school in May.
“We talked at length about what he might face,” Ronald Petty said. “But you have to consider the way my grandson grew up with a father on active duty. Plus, he had to deal with the death of his father at a young age. He's very mature. He knows a great deal more at this age than I did.”
Throughout his career, Chief Petty has always been a positive, proactive and highly professional soldier.”
Brig. Gen. Robbie Asher