Gary “Butch” O’Neal lied about his age and joined the Army at age fifteen to escape a hardscrabble life after being passed around to relatives in Colorado, Nebraska, Utah, and South Dakota following his parents’ divorce. He had Basic Training at Fort Benning, then Infantry AIT, then jump school. He served his first Vietnam tour beginning in 1967 with the 173rd Airborne, operating out of a fire base in the Central Highlands.
“I’d been lost living in America, and in Vietnam I got found,” O’Neal writes in his readable memoir, American Warrior: The True Story of a Legendary Ranger (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s, 304 pp., $26.99), written with David Fisher. “War was what I was good at. It made me a whole person. Like other people fighting over there, I became addicted to the high of being at risk.”
O’Neal wound up fighting in Vietnam for most of the next four years. Before that, though, his past caught up with him when the military discovered his age secret. He was booted out of the Army with an honorable discharge and told he could not re-enlist. But he was eligible for the draft.
And, in 1969, O’Neal became one of the few young American men who manipulated his local draft board—not to get out of the draft, but to move ahead of others and get drafted. He re-entered the Army under his real name. The Army made O’Neal take Basic and AIT again. But he didn’t much care.
“I just wanted to get back to the war,” he says. The DIs “pretty much left me alone; they spent their time messing with the deadheads, trying to turn them into soldiers.”
O’Neal took jump school again at Benning, then it was back to the war. The Army, of all things, made the young man who was itching to become a LRRP, a truck driver. But he soon was back with the 173rd, at Headquarters Company, 4th Battalion. Later he did become a LRRP with Echo Company of the 20th LRRPS, aka Charlie Rangers.
A good deal of the book is made up of details of O’Neal’s Vietnam War tours of duty. He saw plenty of action, was wounded, and received the Silver Star. O’Neal went back for a third tour near the end of the war working for MACV-SOG based in Da Nang.
He went on to fight in both Gulf wars, and became a founding member of the first DOD anti-terrorist team and a member of the Golden Knights Parachuting Team.