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Navy veteran from Tonawanda confronts mortality haunted by memories of Vietnam

Ronald R. Walton came close to dying more than once when he was a machine gunner on a Navy river boat in Vietnam. He didn’t.

But he is dying now.

He has Stage 4 throat cancer that has spread to his lungs.

The 70-year-old veteran believes that swimming in river waters laced with Agent Orange, the carcinogen defoliant that stripped jungle vegetation to deny hiding places to the enemy, contributed to his condition. Smoking cigarettes didn’t help, either.

But Walton explained that he was following the advice of his superiors in the military, who “encouraged us to smoke to help keep us calm.”

Walton left the service after his four-year hitch with nerves shattered by post-traumatic stress that rendered him disabled.

It’s hard for him to talk about his service, but not because of the painful memories that sometimes haunt him. He can’t talk about the war or anything else because cancer treatment has left his vocal cords almost completely paralyzed.

So he has put his war memories on paper with help from his sister, Laura Flick.

They hope that when people read his story, they will contribute to his funeral fund. The government has ruled that his cancer was not caused by his time in Vietnam, Flick said, and the Department of Veterans Affairs will contribute a $300 “burial allowance” to assist in covering her brother’s wake, cremation and interment. The actual cost will be about $3,500, Flick said.

Walton’s voice is now a raspy whisper, but his words ring loud and clear in his written recollections.

“Suddenly two of our boats came under heavy enemy rocket and automatic weapon fire. I immediately started a barrage of fire killing one Viet Cong,” he wrote of a mission to assist Bravo Company ground troops Sept. 15, 1969.

“Later that evening, we were ambushed. Our boat was hit by enemy fire and shrapnel. Being the forward gunner, I kept firing at the enemy although I had sustained multiple wounds and continued to fire until the other boats had cleared the kill zone.

“Once we were out of danger, my captain called for a medevac to carry us out and to take us to a field hospital. I wanted to ensure that my fellow crew members were taken off the boat first and that there were no more Viet Cong lurking on the bank of the river.

“Five of us were wounded, three seriously. I had shrapnel on my face, chest, shoulder, arm, right hand and fractures to my second, third and fourth fingers on my right hand. I made a vow that I was going to walk into the field hospital and was going to walk out. There were many other sailors who needed to be carried on stretchers and I felt they needed to take precedence.”

The wounds he suffered earned him a Purple Heart. His willingness to fight hard against the enemy earned him a Bronze Star.

On another evening patrol, the enemy got the worst of it.

“We could hear voices coming from the riverbank but could not get a visual,” he wrote. “We remained in strict silence and fire control, in an attempt to gain a tactical advantage. The voices drew closer and we could hear splashing in the water. As the enemy attempted to cross the river and came within 30 feet of the boat, our captain ordered us to open fire. The Viet Cong were caught off-guard and we killed 15 of the swimmers.”

Human enemies were not the only threat.

“While on patrol in the rivers of Saigon, we would encounter lily pads that would clog up the intake. We would have to get into the waters and pull debris out so that we could keep going,” Walton wrote. “One time while cleaning out the intake, I encountered a 2-foot venomous snake. When I grabbed it, I immediately threw it. Any time we had to enter the water, someone would stand onboard with the gun to ensure no snakes or lizards would attack us.”

The war also took a toll on his family back home in Hamburg, particularly when they received word that he had been wounded.

“My mother was pregnant at the time with my youngest sister, and when she received the telegram that I was wounded it sent her into premature labor,” he wrote. “My sister was born Sept. 27, 1969.”

Walton wrote that not all of his war memories were ugly. There was beauty, too, such as the time he met the 1969 Miss America, Judith Anne Ford of Illinois.

“She and her court came to visit, and I was given the opportunity to escort Miss Ford on and off the boat,” Walton recalls.

“All of my fellow sailors were very jealous that I was picked from all of them. It was a heart-stopping moment.”

But there was something deeper than beauty that got him through the war, he wrote in reflecting on his service.

“It was a very crazy time. Adrenalin pumping and not knowing what was going to be around the next corner,” he recalls.

“But in the back of my mind, all I could think of was that I was protecting the ones I loved and that they were back home safe.”

Flick, one of Walton’s three sisters, says her brother is putting up a fight to stay alive, but the radiation and chemotherapy have not eradicated the tumors.

No one can say for sure when the end will come, but Walton and his loved ones want to be ready.

Anyone interested in helping to pay for his funeral can make an online contribution at gofundme.com/wrjpak.

Walton can be reached by email at rraw1369@hotmail.com.

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Ronald R. Walton, 70

Hometown: Hamburg

Residence: City of Tonawanda

Branch: Navy

Rank: Gunner’s mate, E-3

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1966-70

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Navy Commendation Medal

Specialty: Forward gunner on river patrol boat