Vietnam War veteran Chuck Ashley of Yorkville comes to terms with experience

Chuck Ashley of Yorkville served on a U.S. Air Force base in Thailand during the Vietnam War.

Chuck Ashley of Yorkville is a Vietnam War veteran who has come to terms with his military service in one of this nation’s most divisive conflicts.

The son of a World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Ashley followed in his father’s footsteps when making one of the most important decisions of his life.

After graduating from Oswego High School in 1964, Ashley knew that college was not in his future.

“I never felt I was ready to go to college,” Ashley said.

With his mechanical aptitude, Ashley quickly found work in the machine shop of Caterpillar in Montgomery and soon found himself in the heavy equipment manufacturer’s training program.

By October 1965, Ashley’s friends were getting draft notices and he knew that he would be called up.

Rather than be drafted, the 19-year-old Ashley enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, successor to his father’s Army Air Corps. He had taken an Air Force aptitude exam while still in high school.

He began his military service in February 1966 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He served at air bases in Colorado, Minnesota and Kansas before receiving orders in the summer of 1967 for an overseas tour of duty.

By October 1967, Ashley found himself at Takhli Air Force Base in Thailand, about 150 miles north of Bangkok and a front-line outpost in the Vietnam War.

There, Ashley loaded bombs, missiles and rockets onto F-105 Thunderchief fighter/bombers.

“It’s kind of scary until you really understand the way things work,” Ashley said of handling the explosives.

The Takhli base is located in the middle of a jungle. Unbeknownst to Ashley at the time, the military was using the defoliant known as Agent Orange to clear areas around the base.

All the while, Ashley’s skills apparently were gaining the attention of the brass, because he was receiving promotions and became a staff sergeant.

“I was fully dedicated to whatever mission they were giving,” Ashley said, adding that he saw the war as a fight against communism.

“I felt that was what we were there for, was to fight that,” Ashley said.

Ashley voluntarily extended his tour and ended up spending 19 months in Thailand.

While at Takhli, Ashley was named the base airman of the year in 1968.

Returning to the U.S., Ashley was assigned to weapons testing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, working on gatling guns for C-130 aircraft.

Ashley was sent to a non-commissioned officers training academy in New Mexico.

“I gave serious consideration to a career in the Air Force,” Ashley said.

But knowing that he could return to Caterpillar with his seniority intact, Ashley decided to return to civilian life. He obtained an early discharge and left the service in December 1969.

Like many Vietnam-era veterans, Ashley was disappointed with the reception upon returning home.

“When I came back I never felt people helped us,” Ashley said. “There never was an end to Vietnam.”

Ashley stayed at Caterpillar, retiring in February 2009.

But Ashley’s experience with the Vietnam War was not completely over, in more ways than one.

After retiring, Ashley learned that he had stomach cancer, which he believes was most likely caused by his exposure to Agent Orange.

A portion of his stomach was removed and he lost 70 pounds, but it has been five years since his last chemotherapy treatment and he is cancer-free.

Ashley applied for benefits from the Veterans Administration, which turned down his request on the grounds that the link to the defoliant could not be proven.

Yet, Ashley does not express bitterness about getting the disease or the VA’s decision.

“I was blessed that the doctors caught it early,” Ashley said. “I know people who have had problems with Agent Orange.”

Today, Ashley rides motorcycles and likes to read about them, along with cars and airplanes. He has been married to wife of 28 years, Gayle Ashley, who also likes to ride cycles with her husband.

Ashley is an active member of Yorkville American Legion Post 489, where he is senior vice commander of the Sons of the America Legion and member of the Legion Riders motorcycle club.

He bowls in two leagues, one in Yorkville and the other in Montgomery.

This past summer, Ashley finally received the recognition he was due, with a trip to Washington, D.C., on the Honor Flight.

Departing from Midway Airport in Chicago, Ashley visited the Air Force and World War II memorials and of course the famed Vietnam “Wall” memorial, all in one day.

The welcome home at Midway impressed Ashley and seems to have given him some closure to his Vietnam War experience.

“The number of people there who welcome you back was pretty amazing,” Ashley said. “There really are people who do appreciate what you go through.”