"Army Lesson 101 - Grin and Bear It"

by Ron Dolecki


I enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school graduation in 1963 because I wanted to learn a trade while completing my military obligation (people were drafted in those days). The Army recruiter guaranteed that I would be trained as a “Construction Draftsman”in the Army Engineer School at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. But first I had to go through basic training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. I arrived at the Ft. Jackson Reception Center on a bus in the middle of the night, and immediately got K.P. I thought I would get the following morning off to sleep, but that notion was just a fantasy. I was told to fall out in front of my assigned barracks for roll call (they had several per day), and wait for my name to be called so I could dutifully yell “here sergeant!” But there were a lot of unfamiliar faces in the reception company, where a hundred recruits from all over the country could be thrown together overnight. So when the sergeant called for a response to the name “Delsinki,” how could I know he meant me? I’m Dolecki (pronounced Dole-eh-key). After he got no response, the sergeant became visibly agitated and hollered “Where’s Delsinki, serial number 13801718?” Now that serial number was something I could recognize, so I shouted “here sergeant!” He got in my face and yelled “Don’t you know your own name, son?” I tried to defend myself by uttering the correct pronunciation of my name, but he warned me not to “talk back.”

Well, the reception company was in a constant state of flux; recruits arrived and departed daily. So if you were in it for two or three days you were already an “old timer.” I fell out for another roll call, and a different sergeant yelled “Dolacheck,”a name remotely similar to mine, so my new mind-set dictated that I respond “here sergeant!” The only trouble was that there was a new arrival actually named Dolacheck, and he also responded “here sergeant!” So again, I got a face-to-face cajoling from a roll call sergeant because “I didn’t know my own name.” Sometimes, you just can’t win.

Basic training wasn’t as difficult as the war stories I heard. The most difficult part was the lack of sleep…and the KP. I was always getting KP. But most average people could endure basic training without a heroic effort. Incidentally, my platoon sergeant in basic training called me “Dokely” for the duration.


I arrived at Ft. Belvoir on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1963, and immediately got KP. The following Monday, I reported to my school company NCOIC, and he angrily asked “How the hell did you get into Map Compiling School wearing glasses? You’re supposed to have 20/20 uncorrected vision for this course!” I said “There must be some mistake. I was promised Construction Drafting by my recruiter.” But the sergeant chuckled like he was in on a private joke and replied “Go to Map Compiling School.” I hated Map Compiling School. It was boring, tedious, and quite complicated. I remember getting KP during a one-day-block of instruction on “Field Classification Surveys” so I had to miss that day of school. When I returned to school the following day, my instructor said I would have to take an exam on the block of instruction I just missed. I asked how I could pass an exam on material I never had. He simply said that the other students took the exam, so I had to. I stayed after school to take the exam, and handed in a blank answer sheet with my name on it. The instructor said that was OK, at least he had given me the exam. That missed block of instruction would become a matter of irony later in my army enlistment.

Part way through Map Compiling School, each student was given an extraneous test for an advanced course called “Multiplex Map Compiling.” None of the students knew exactly what that was, and none seemed to care because we were told that our class was going to Germany or Japan after graduation. I was glad because either country seemed like a good assignment for me. However, upon graduation I learned that I was one of a handful of students being held back for “Multiplex Map Compiling School.” The others went to Germany and Japan as advertised. I was livid. I complained that I didn’t want an advanced Map Compiling School. I didn’t even want the basic Map Compiling School. Besides, I wore glasses, remember? Nevertheless, I had to attend “Multiplex Map Compiling School.” After a few weeks in that school, a miraculous transformation occurred. I really began to like it. Besides, I was told that there were only three places on earth that had multiplex map compiling equipment: Germany, Japan, and Ft. Belvoir. So I figured I would finally get a desirable assignment to one of those places. Instead, I got orders for Iran. I burst into my sergeant’s office and said “I don’t get it. I had to take all this training I didn’t want, and now I’m being assigned to a place where I can’t use it.” The sergeant reminded me that “your ways are not the Army ways.” He advised me to “ride with the tide, go with the flow, put your time in, then get the hell out.” That was sound advice.


I boarded a military chartered plane in Charleston, South Carolina, and headed for Iran. The plane had to stop temporarily at Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli, Libya, to disembark some troops, refuel, and deliver mail. I remember looking out the window as the plane descended toward Wheelus, and I thought what a god-forsaken place that was. The pilot announced that those of us who were going to Iran should stay on board because we wouldn’t be at Wheelus very long. Shortly after landing, a military courier boarded the plane and gave me revised orders essentially saying “You’re stationed here.” I wondered why an army private was being assigned to an Air Force Base that didn’t have any use for his military occupational skills. I was driven to a small army garrison in a remote section of the base, and assigned to a barracks filled with troops who had no set jobs. Many were playing cards, some were in bed in the middle of the day, and others were basking on a beach at the nearby Mediterranean Sea. This was the home of the Army’s 64th Engineer Battalion, Special Foreign Activity. I would belong to this unit for the rest of my enlistment.

I was put on a roster of troops whose only task was to move a water sprinkler so grass would grow in front of the headquarters building. There were so many troops on the roster that I think I had to move the sprinkler once during the three months I was there. Of course, I still got KP. This time, however, it was in a bakery rather than a messhall. You don’t know what real heat is like until you’ve worked in a bakery in the already baking heat of Libya.

I knew I wouldn’t last much longer in a situation like that, so I asked the company clerk (a Radar O’Reilly-type) how I could transfer anywhere else. He said that the guys in the barracks were a pool of bodies slated for assignment to Ethiopia, Iran, or Sudan as requests for replacements came in from those countries. I asked him to help me get to Ethiopia (I read that the climate there was best), and he agreed. Within about a week (no kidding), I got orders for Ethiopia. When the first sergeant gave me my new orders at morning roll call, he asked “How in the blazes did you get out of here so fast? There’s plenty of guys who have been here longer than you!” I said “I don’t know, you signed the orders.” I would have winked at the company clerk if he were present.


When I got to Ethiopia in 1964, I was told that I would be doing “Field Cassification Surveys,” ironically the only block of instruction I missed at Ft. Belvoir. I was driven to an airfield where an Army UH-1B helicopter was warming up, ordered to get on board, and told to navigate the chopper over a designated strip of land shown on aerial photographs just handed to me. Talk about on-the-job-training…this was the sink or swim method taken to the extreme. I wondered how a 19-year-old kid getting on a helicopter for the first time in his life with no training whatsoever as a navigator was going to tell an officer where to fly this contraption without getting lost. But somehow I did it…for several months. I got us lost a few times, but not hopelessly. In fact, I got quite skilled at what I did and began to enjoy my job...that is until July 12th, 1965. That was a day I’ll never forget.

On that fateful day, I was part of a three-man helicopter crew that was captured by guerillas in northern Ethiopia and given up for dead. None of us knew that an armed rebellion was underway in that part of the country when we began a routine mapping project there. When we landed to collect mapping data, we were ambushed by 30 heavily armed guerillas. At first, I didn’t even realize we were being ambushed. The eruption of gunfire made me scan the surrounding hills thinking that a local firefight had broken out between feuding clans. I heard about such fighting in other parts of Ethiopia, so I thought it happened here too. Then terror struck as I saw machine gun bullets churning the ground progressively closer to me. Before I could take cover, I spotted a rifleman near the tail boom of the helicopter carefully aiming his weapon at me. My entire body stiffened in anticipation of the bullet that was sure to come. But the rifleman held his fire. Quickly, more shooters emerged from the brush, and one of them knocked my interpreter (an Ethiopian national) to the ground. Another guerilla raised his rifle overhead to bash the interpreter’s skull, but the deadly blow was stopped in mid-motion by two more riflemen, who may have realized that their group could not talk to us without the interpreter. I had not seen the helicopter pilot during the whole ambush episode, so I thought he was dead. However, he was soon escorted to my side of the helicopter, alive and well. The three of us were then ordered, through my stunned interpreter, to undress so the guerillas could search for hidden weapons. Our captors held bayonets to our throats as we complied.

By this time, all of the guerillas were in the open and began to loot and destroy the helicopter. Some were smashing windows and clubbing the fuselage with their rifle butts; others were cutting out the cloth interior with bayonets. All the while they were hooting and hollering like a mob of rampaging lunatics. Then they set the helicopter on fire and the fuel tanks quickly exploded. I could not imagine what they were going to do to us while they were in such a crazed, destructive frenzy. I was so frightened my knees started knocking. Oddly, I remembered only seeing knees knocking in cartoons on TV, and I always thought that’s because such expressions of fear only occurred in a make-believe world. But it was happening to me in real life. To my astonishment, the guerillas magically composed themselves, told us to get dressed, and reminded us to obey their commands without hesitation. They identified themselves as the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and told us we were being held as spies. The spy charges seemed preposterous, but we did have a stack of aerial photographs of their territory, many with observational notes on them. To make matters worse, each photograph had a bold title block reading “Ethiopia-US Mapping Mission,” proving to our captors which “side” we were on. The guerillas now threatened to shoot us if we became troublesome. Then we began a 12-day, 150-mile forced march to the neighboring country of Sudan.

Once we settled into a routine with our captors, I began to watch them closely. They were short, lean men with chiseled features, probably between the ages of 17 and 50. They were well disciplined, wore no symbols of rank, and gave few indications of who was in charge. Their numbers sometimes swelled noticeably as they rendezvoused with other insurgents, who quietly left after a day or two. The largest number of guerillas I counted in one place at any time was 75. They carried an assortment of small arms, such as American-made M-1 Garands and M-1 carbines probably taken from Ethiopian soldiers killed in ambushes; communist-made CZ-52 and Moisin-Nagant M44 rifles likely obtained from Sudan; a belt-fed light machine gun; and a few British-made sub-machine guns. I only saw them display a flag one time. It was Somali. Eritrea didn’t have its own flag yet.

Our daily food ration consisted of foul-smelling water and some type of sweetened broth, but no solid food. We usually traveled at night to avoid the 110-degree daytime heat and possible detection by searchers. During the first ten days of captivity, we walked across the northern tip of Ethiopia, where we frequently heard and observed search planes. However, the planes could not spot us because we were always forced at gunpoint to take cover. Eventually, the search planes stopped coming and American newspapers reported that we were probably dead. The ELF took us to many small villages whose inhabitants seemed cooperative but anxious for us to move on. A few potentially disastrous encounters with large roving units of the Ethiopian army were avoided, and we eventually crossed the border into Sudan, where the ELF enjoyed sanctuary. We were photographed for propaganda purposes and described in an East African newspaper as defectors to the ELF revolution.

On the 12th day of captivity, I managed to slip away from the ELF while they were preoccupied with cooking and other chores. I walked eastward, traveling by day so I could see the unfamiliar terrain. I chanced upon a water hole, drank all I could, and splashed my body to cool it down. Sleeping at night was nearly impossible because prowling hyenas would come toward me when I lay down. As a result, in the afternoon of the third day on my own, I fell unconscious for a few hours from exhaustion and the intense heat. Later that day I resumed walking and just before dark found a remote police outpost near the Sudanese border town of Kassala.

A few days later, I returned to U.S. control and began a brief recovery in Kagnew Station hospital at Asmara, Ethiopia. I had lost 20 pounds and was dehydrated. I soon learned that the other two helicopter crewmen were unexpectedly released by the ELF near another Sudanese town. The two men had been beaten by the ELF but not seriously injured. All three of us were just glad to be free.

I had many other adventures in Ethiopia, such as flying into areas so remote that the natives had never seen white people or helicopters…what a combination of firsts! Also, I once conversed with members of the Shankila tribe, who my interpreter warned were head-hunters; we left before they overcame their awe of our flying machine. On another occasion, my helicopter crew was detained at gunpoint by some warring tribesmen who released us after realizing that we were not even remotely involved in their local squabble. I have a hundred other stories about that country.

I traveled extensively as a soldier, and generally thought that was great. I visited about 15 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as many areas of the U.S. Prior to that, I had never been away from home. All that traveling may seem enviable, but there was one aspect of it that I did not relish…the loneliness. Traveling as a soldier often meant you were alone and on stand-by status. So you could spend a lot of time at airports waiting for a plane to leave with an available cheap seat. You tried to fight boredom by reading a book, solving crossword puzzles, or seeking whatever limited entertainment was available in an airport terminal. During all the waiting, you felt invisible, as if no one knew you existed. There was no loved-one to talk with, to kiss you goodbye, to wish you a safe trip, or to watch your plane depart. You were merely a robot going from point A to point B. Even now, when I go to airports or bus terminals and spot a soldier milling about, I recall such moments of inescapable loneliness. Then I wonder how that soldier is coping with it.


This is really difficult for others to understand, but my transition from Army life to civilian life was much more difficult than the reverse. When I left the service in May 1966, I left behind an exciting job with lots of travel and adventure, a good salary as an E-5 on flight status, and loads of responsibility. When I entered the civilian job market, I got a minimum-wage job in a glass bottle factory where my primary companion was a broom. That job was mind-numbing, the type of work you could train a chimpanzee to do if you had enough bananas. In addition, the civilians my age seemed profoundly immature. Their only goals in life appeared to be drinking and screwing…on or off the job.

Moreover, I had lost touch with developments in the “civilized” world. When my parents talked about go-go dancers, I thought they were referring to some new kind of seedy sexual entertainment. When I listened to “golden oldies” on the radio, I was hearing many of those tunes for the first time. So I knew I had emerged from a time warp because in Ethiopia I had no access to radio or TV programs. I also couldn’t understand how my folks tolerated all the mindless commercials on television. I found the commercials so repulsive, repetitive, and irritating that I just couldn’t watch TV anymore. The only way I could cope was to mingle with veterans in my home town. Eventually, I re-adjusted to the point where I could watch TV again without becoming disturbed, I could tolerate the superficiality of “civilized” society, and I could finally go to college to get the training I really wanted…guaranteed!

Now I often wonder why many veterans regard their military service as one of the most important benchmarks in their lives. I think this is because many young men really leave home for the first time, learn to fend for themselves, and bond with others in pursuit of some common goal that can have a life-or-death outcome. In addition, a lifetime of exciting adventures is often compressed into a few years of military service. That’s the way it was for me, and that’s why I will always cherish the memories.