Awards and plaques span the walls of the room Ed O’Neal stands in as he talks about his war injuries.
“I entered the military June 20, 1956 at the age of 17 and retired November 1, 1976, at the age of 37,” said O’Neal, who lives in Rockingham. “I have five and a half years of combat time in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Once I was under fire for over 30 consecutive days.”
O’Neal’s dog, Airborne, looked up to her master as he spoke with a steady voice.
“I was promoted to 1st Sergeant in 10 years and later to Command Sgt. Major in 14 years. During that period of time, to accelerate that fast was unheard of,” he said.
O’Neal joined the Special Forces in the Army, completed Ranger school and was a HALO (High-Altitude, Low Opening) jumper. He was trained as a medic and helped people when he could. He also conducted missions in which he parachuted into enemy compounds at night to free American prisoners. O’Neal grew close to the Vietnamese people during the time he was there.
“I speak fluent Vietnamese,” he said. “I became somewhat adapted to the local environment, learning their taboos and customs.”
One thing O’Neal noticed was the lack of nourishment the Vietnamese children were receiving. The high infant mortality rate bothered him and he soon sought solutions.
“They had midwives in the Vietnamese compound and were losing two out of every five babies born. I saw this as a major problem, so I took over the Ob/Gyn for (the) midwives. I built my own delivery table.”
O’Neal has black and white photographs of the table he built. It was level, with two spaces for feet at one end, with a hole in the table between the foot supports. He explained that the mothers could better brace themselves while bearing down, and the hole allowed the afterbirth to be removed easily into a bucket beneath the table.
O’Neal said he saw midwives use a technique that bothered him. They would place a cinder block on the mother’s stomach to help press the baby out during delivery. This often killed the baby and injured the mother, so O’Neal took it upon himself to retrain the midwives.
“In the next four of five years, out of 205 babies delivered, I never lost one,” he said proudly. “That became a morale factor for the women of the troops. Once I examined these ladies and discovered the pregnancy, I put them on vitamins to build the health of both the mother and baby … .”
O’Neal sat in his kitchen, holding a black and white photo of a health baby girl. He had tears in his eyes. He delivered the baby, but the parents rode their bicycle over a land mine and didn’t return home. He took the girl under his care.
“Friends of mine in the states sent me Carnation milk, bottles, nipples and a sterilizer so I could safely feed her,” he recalled. “At 12 months old this child was equivalent to the size of a four-year-old. She was healthy and thriving. Soon she began responding to me in English. That’s when I gave her back to the Vietnamese. I did not think the Vietnamese Embassy or the American Embassy would let me take her out of the country.”
O’Neal became aware that the bubonic plaque was present among the sick Vietnamese. He asked his friends in the states to send him bags of candy. O’Neal organized the village children, whom he called the Rat Patrol, and asked them to kill the rats. Instead of hanging them up to dry to make jerky, he had the rats brought to him to be burned. The children were rewarded with pieces of candy and plague numbers dropped.
O’Neal has four purple hearts. He has been shot more times than he can count. His helicopter was shot down two times. He suffered concussions from tree limbs and trauma from mines. He said the steel plate in his Army issued boot was the only thing that saved him when he stepped on a mine that blasted him several feet into the air. When he landed, he still had all his pieces. Despite PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), degenerative bone disease and nerve damage, O’Neal still gets around his sprawling property to fish and take care of his dogs and grape vines. He is also an advocate for veteran health care.
“Now the veterans of Richmond County are being diagnosed with PTSD and suffering consequences. Almost daily I receive a phone call or encounter a veteran threatening to end their life from PTSD and its effects. I work diligently to get them sent to Fayetteville to get treatment. Sometimes it works and other times it does not,” he said.
O’Neal volunteers for veteran functions and donates food when he has excess. Many come to him for his medical knowledge and his ability to get things done among military folks. He served on the VA board in Fayetteville for several years, and works with AMVETS Post 316 in Rockingham which represents veterans in Scotland, Anson and Richmond counties.
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at email@example.com.