CANTON — Vietnam veteran Michael Conley could be called a hero, but he doesn’t see it that way. A Cherokee County resident, he says he is just an ordinary country man.
Conley, 68, who has served in the military with two tours of Vietnam in the 1960s among others and in various leadership roles, has been invited to be the guest speaker at the Canton Chili Cook-off in conjunction with the Veterans Day Parade on Saturday at 12 p.m. in Cannon Park.
His last deployment was to Iraq in 2005 at the age of 52. As a first sergeant, in addition to training the Iraqi army, his job was to bring his soldiers home safely, he said.
“Saving peoples’ lives and bringing children home became my job,” Conley said. “Bringing your loved ones home was my mission.”
Conley served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969 before going to ranger school, where he was selected for the Merrill’s Marauders Award. He later served as a Special Forces Green Beret in the late ‘70s.
The veteran said he had extraordinary respect for those who served in the military during World War II.
“There are veterans of World War II who are still alive. Some are in hospitals, in Alzheimer’s or nursing homes. Their road in life is short. My road is getting narrow, but still bumpy. These guys need someone to stand in front of them who has been there, who did what they did during the war for our country, the Great War,” he said. “After these guys fought World War II, we’ve never won another war. They were the heroes.”
Originally from Indiana, the veteran’s military career brought him to Georgia, working in places including Fort Benning, where he liked the climate. After his service to his country, he tutored chemistry to undergraduates at Chattahoochee Technical College. He will return to Fort Benning Dec. 16 to speak to service men and women in training.
When he retired from the military in 2009, Conley received the Meritorious Service Medal for his leadership and service of more than 42 years.
“For over 40 years as leader in the army, [Conley] maintained his focus on the soldiers as the military’s most important asset. He set the example as a warrior before the conception to lead an army into the next century,” the award reads.
After his Vietnam tours, Conley struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. It can be difficult to know if a veteran is dealing with PTSD, he said.
“There are a lot of veterans walking around that will tell you, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’ But if a car backfires while he’s driving down the road, he’s likely to duck. He could live next door to a neighbor who has no idea what he’s been through, who thinks it’s funny to drive up his driveway and knock off nine or 10 rounds at a time,” Conley said. “Most of the veterans I know will go to the Veterans Day parade, but we probably will not go to Fourth of July. The Fourth of July, watch it on TV with the sound on mute. Your body can’t stand the noise.”
The veteran recalls a time he lost one of his soldiers in Iraq, and he comforted the man’s wife.
“A lady in Dalton beat me on the chest,” Conley said. “Her husband had suffered for nine years after touring Iraq, and he died. I had said, ‘I hope to bring them all home alive.’ But he had been in an explosion. I let her beat me, I let her cry on my chest. I put my arms around her. She could not cry tears any more than I did, except the boys never knew it.”
The retired first sergeant said that spouses and families sacrifice just as much as those who serve. Since retiring from Chattahoochee Tech, he plans to spend more time with his family.
“[I am] going to take care of the wife and the horse and the little doggy. I’m going to take a vacation or two to see the leaves fall, stop and smell the roses,” he said. “[My wife] doesn’t need to see me march off to wars any more, she needs to see me come through a door.”
Asked what he would like to see people do to support veterans, Conley said it’s simple: “You should do something nice every day.”
Conley continues to actively serve at Antioch Christian Church, where the congregation sent letters and care packages during his last tour. He also rides with the Patriot Guard Riders to the national cemetery to honor those who have given their lives in military service. He’s also a member of American Legion Post 45, which is holding the parade Saturday.
“We want to honor veterans for their many sacrifices and pray for peace,” Conley said.