Chad Colley (1944–2021)
aka: Ralph C. Colley Jr.
Chad Colley, a veteran of the Vietnam War, was a pilot, businessman, and advocate for disabled Americans. Colley lost both legs and the use of an arm in an explosion in Vietnam. He won two gold medals in the 1992 Paralympics and was recognized by Ronald Reagan for his efforts on behalf of Americans with disabilities. Colley was also active in Republican Party presidential campaigns.
Chad Colley was born Ralph C. Colley Jr. on May 13, 1944, in Fort Smith (Sebastian County). His parents were Ralph C. Colley, a native of Arkansas, and Catherine Colley, a native of Oklahoma. His father served in three wars—World War II, Korea, and Vietnam—and was awarded the Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Bronze Star. He later served as a Republican state representative for Sebastian County.
As a child in a military family, Colley lived at various times in Germany, Japan, Georgia, and Kansas. During summers, Colley visited family in Arkansas for extended periods, but he attended high school in Columbus, Georgia. After graduating, he attended North Georgia College (now the University of North Georgia), a military school, where he majored in math and minored in physics. He also played football and ran track, was a member of the Sigma Theta fraternity, and was selected to be a member of the Scabbard and Blade, the National Military Honor Society.
In 1966, immediately after graduating, Colley was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. The next year, he married Betty Ann Putnam, a native of Georgia; they had two children.
Colley arrived in Vietnam in November 1967. Once there, he was put in charge of a platoon based roughly fifty miles north of Saigon. Within six months, Colley was named company commander. In late July 1968, during his eighth month “in country,” Colley was in the field with his men, waiting to attack a Vietnamese position, when a mine detonated. The blast knocked him unconscious briefly and mangled both of his legs and his left arm. In the hospital, Colley’s legs were amputated above the knee, and his wounded arm was amputated below the elbow. Despite the severity of his wounds, he said he suffered no psychological trauma. “I had to get on with it. Plain and simple,” he recalled in the early 2000s. Upon his release from the military, Colley held the rank of captain and had received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the Combat Infantry Badge.
After leaving Vietnam, he settled in Barling (Sebastian County), where his family lived. In May 1970, Colley accompanied Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, Lieutenant Governor Maurice Lee “Footsie” Britt, and Medal of Honor recipient Nick Daniel (Nicky) Bacon on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock (Pulaski County) at the groundbreaking for a Medal of Honor memorial. A few days later, Colley announced he was running for state representative for Position 1, District 12 for Sebastian County. However, he was defeated by the incumbent, Democrat B. G. Hendrix. On Veterans Day 1970, Colley again appeared with Governor Rockefeller on the capitol steps.
In honor of his accomplishments, in 1970, Colley was awarded Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year, which he accepted in Los Angeles, California. That same year, he began working in real estate. He also received his pilot’s license (the first triple amputee to do so) and soon afterward bought his own plane. He also took up skiing.
In the 1980s, Colley was nationally recognized for his work with veterans’ causes and for making public facilities accessible to disabled Americans. In 1981, Colley—who was a member of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Amputee Chapter 76 in New York and served as the DAV Department of Arkansas second junior vice commander—was awarded the national Medal of Honor from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. During Ronald Reagan’s second term as president, Colley served as national commander for DAV, living in Washington DC from 1984 to 1985. In 1984, he was selected to lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with President Reagan. In 1986, the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped named him Handicapped American of the Year. In 1992, he won two gold medals at the Paralympics in Albertville, France, in the downhill and slalom events.
Colley was a Baptist who has taught Bible study classes. In the 1990s, he worked for the Arkansas State GOP Executive Committee and for the George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole presidential campaigns and spoke at the 1996 Republican national convention in San Diego, California, introducing the presidential candidate, Senator Bob Dole. In addition, Colley worked for the Sebastian County GOP Committee and has worked as a director for local government projects.
He also continued to advocate for veterans. In 1997, he received the Unsung Hero Award from the Louis Pope LIFE Foundation. In 2010, Colley was the first recipient of University of North Georgia’s Ralph Colley Spirit of North Georgia Award, which honors those who have “experienced adverse circumstances” but have nevertheless led “an exemplary life.” In 2014, he appeared in the documentary series Unbroken Soldiers, produced by Disabled American Veterans.
By 2003, Colley had retired, spending time between his homes in Barling and New Smyrna Beach, Florida. He also served on the National Council on Disability and the Disabled Veterans and the DAV’s Committee for the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, which has involved several hundred veterans traveling to Colorado to ski. In 2013, a park was named for Colley in Van Buren (Crawford County) called the Colley Wilderness Park. Chad Colley Boulevard in Fort Smith is also named after him.
Colley died on January 30, 2021. He is buried in Fort Smith National Cemetery.
For additional information:
“Barling Real Estate Salesman Wins DAV Award as Outstanding Veteran.” Arkansas Gazette, June 14, 1970, p. 6A.
Brown, Jesse, and Daniel Paisner. The Price of Their Blood: Profiles in Spirit. Chicago: Bonus Books, 2003.
Chad Colley Memorial Service, East Side Baptist Church. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fQsUL_eLqQ (accessed September 9, 2021).
“Colley Awarded Top DAR Medal,” DAV Magazine, February 1981, p. 15.
Obituary of Ralph C. “Chad” Colley Jr. https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/swtimes/obituary.aspx?n=ralph-c-colley-chad&pid=197641641 (accessed September 9, 2021).
Saylor, Ryan. “Van Buren Accepts Land for Colley Wilderness Park.” City Wire, September 16, 2013.
Colin Edward Woodward
UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture
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