WASHINGTON– U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) recognized the service and sacrifice of the late Ralph C. “Chad” Colley, Jr., a veteran of the Vietnam War, in ‘Salute to Veterans,’ a series recognizing the military service of Arkansans.
Colley was born in Fort Smith on May 13, 1944. He fondly recalled growing up in a military family with his dad, who loved the Army, and a mother who enjoyed being an Army wife.
At an early age he learned skills that would prepare him for service in his nation’s uniform, with his dad passing along his passion for the Army. “He brought everything from a Browning Automatic Rifle down to the house and I learned how to field strip them,” Colley said. “I could break them down with the best of ‘em when I was about ten.”
He moved often in childhood due to his dad’s military service, living in Kansas, Georgia, Germany and Japan. “I loved it. I’m a true military brat,” Colley said.
After graduating from Columbus High School in Columbus, Georgia, Colley continued his education at North Georgia College, today called the University of North Georgia, a military college. He met his future wife, Betty Ann, while a student. They continued a long-distance relationship while his sweetheart completed her education at the University of Florida.
Colley was commissioned as an Army officer in 1966. The following year he and Betty Ann married. They were still newlyweds when Colley was deployed to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division.
He sustained life-altering injuries after stepping on a landmine in 1968. “I remember seeing my legs gone,” Colley said. He quickly pushed back thoughts of death. “I want to live so badly that whatever it takes I’ll do it. I’m down for it. Let me get back and fight,” he remembered thinking before the medic arrived to help him.
It took several weeks before his condition improved enough for him to be transferred to Japan for more specialized care. People back home were able to follow updates about his recovery. “My injury took such a period of time that there was something in the Fort Smith paper almost every day.”
Both of Colley’s legs were amputated above the knee and his left arm below the elbow, but he focused on what he had instead of what he lost. He maintained this positive attitude for the rest of his life.
“In order to carry myself from that point to the person I became, I did have to change how people – their perception of me,” Colley said. “When I was in a group and they gave me these pitiful looks like my life could not be worse, I must be terribly unhappy, it infuriated me. That’s not who I was.”
Colley didn’t let his disability slow him down. Instead, he continued to challenge himself by launching a career in real estate, obtaining his pilot’s license and taking up skiing. During the 1992 Paralympic games in Albertville, France, at 48-years-old, he won gold medals in both Downhill and Super G events.
“The skiing is the one thing that I could finally do where gravity worked for me,” Colley said. “I was skiing against world-class competitors whose parents were younger than I was.”
Disabled American Veterans (DAV) honored him as its Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year in 1970. As a result of his leadership, action was taken to make public facilities more accessible to all disabled Americans. He was elected National Commander of DAV in 1984 where he continued to influence positive change for veterans.
“Life has been extraordinarily rewarding,” Colley said.
He and Betty Ann have two children and three grandchildren. He credited his success to his loved ones. “I have been supported all along by my family — particularly Betty Ann and my mother. I don’t know how many times she’s told me she wished she could swap places with me. I love the depth of her love,” he said of his 97-year-old mother.
Chad Colley, recipient of the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, passed away on January 30, 2021. He is buried in the Fort Smith National Cemetery.
Boozman submitted remarks to the Congressional Record honoring Colley’s life.
“Chad Colley made extreme sacrifices for his country. We are forever blessed by his selfless service and the remarkable determination he demonstrated throughout his life. He was a leader who used his voice to help advance policies to help others live a meaningful life. He did it all with a positive, infectious attitude,” Boozman said.
Boozman will present Colley’s entire interview to the Veterans History Project, an initiative of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center to collect and retain the oral histories of our nation’s veterans.