The Captain Stephen J. Chaney story reads like a Hollywood script, one starring the likes of John Wayne. However Steve Chaney was a real person who grew up in Marion, Ohio and was killed in action in September of 1969 on a secret mission during the Vietnam War. The Green Beret soldier was only 23. On May 3, 2013 in a ceremony at the Ohio State House, Lt Governor Mary Taylor and a host of military officials posthumously inducted Steve and nineteen other Ohioans into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame.
Chaney was born in 1946 and graduated from Marion Catholic High School in 1964. A stellar athlete he was heavily recruited by most college football powers. His father was a career army man and sharing the love of the military, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Steve would attend West Point. However, a visit to Notre Dame woke up the echoes for Steve. At South Bend he saw the traditions of his Faith combined with that of the gridiron. Upon returning to Marion his parents were stunned with his desire to attend Notre Dame.
As Steve arrived at Notre Dame in the summer of 1964 the Gulf of Tonkin Incident which sparked the United States’ heightened involvement in the conflict had just occurred. Before there was Pat Tilman (the football star who left the NFL to join the army and was killed in action in Afghanistan,) there was Steve Chaney. After one year at Notre Dame, Steve against the advice of fellow freshman and future Vietnam vet and Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier, would leave South Bend and a disappointed new Coach Ara Parseghian to enter the US Army. At that point the small anti-war movement only helped to push Chaney further toward doing what he could for the burgeoning war effort. Chaney entered the Army as an enlisted man and left as a Captain.
After one tour of duty he could have left the army, but Chaney saw the deterioration of the command structure and felt a younger leader like himself might help buttress morale. Because he led from the front, Chaney was popular with his men and the man from Marion felt he knew what it took to lead in those critical times. More than once Chaney had to pull aside a fellow officer and remind him of setting a moral example and living with what he was doing in the field, and the consequences a much Higher Power might inflict upon him at a yet undetermined date.
Chaney even confided in his parents, shortly before his second tour of Vietnam, that he secretly longed to return to Notre Dame and get back on the football team. Sadly that possibility never occurred as Captain Chaney was killed in action during a secret mission to Laos in September 1969. Caught in an ambush and a failed air assault, a critically injured Captain Chaney called in more air support all the while trying to locate all of his men. When helped arrived, he clung to life but only for a short time, he died before the helicopter landed at the nearby field hospital.
On a personal note having also graduated from Marion Catholic some eighteen years later than Chaney, I know the reverence felt for him from those who were barely born when he died. Seeing that the school enrollment varied between 200-300 students, the stories of his quiet courage and steadfastness reached through the years, and his example of doing what is right not popular left an impression on those who walked down those same halls of Marion Catholic as did a young Steve Chaney.
Whether in the classroom, the football field, or the battlefield, Chaney gave others the respect he so richly earned. Fear was not part of his vocabulary or decision process, as exemplified by the love of his faith, family and friends. Though Steve could never have met him, a young priest from Krakow, Poland the future Pope John Paul II would give the world a phrase for which Steve lived by; “Be Not Afraid.”
Steve’s old friends from Marion Catholic vowed that his service of country would never be forgotten. For years they raised money for the Captain Stephen J Chaney Scholarship Fund at Marion Catholic (before the school closed in 2013) and in that same vain Steve’s best friend Tim Lyons who now lives in Columbus has worked tirelessly to help promote Steve’s legacy to a world that so desperately needs heroes. The Chaney’s were family friends of my family. They had helped us deal with the death of my 16 year old sister Renate who died in an automobile accident in 1985. Captain Chaney’s parents Ken and Frances Chaney have both since passed away, but I spoke with the Ken Chaney in 2005 while writing another article on his son. The elder Chaney was busy arranging some information about his son for a family member.
“I was just looking at the letters General (William) Westmoreland and President (Richard) Nixon sent to us following Steve’s death. We had a lot of letters of condolence and support and it really helped us. We have met with two boys that were with Steve when he died, Staff Sergeant Stephen Wilson and Specialist 4 Lawrence Maurey. They had horrific injuries, one is a paraplegic and it took them both years to recover. Yet those two aren’t bitter and they never acted like anyone owed them anything. They have made something of their lives in spite of what happened to them.” Chaney concluded our conversation by saying, “You know it was good to talk to you again and I hope that people will read this story about Steve and take something from Steve’s life as well as the men who survived that awful battle. They tried to do what they thought were right and I just wish the media would talk about people like this instead of all the negative news that came out of Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan”
Captain Chaney didn’t have to go back for another tour but felt compelled to do so as the war was becoming less popular and younger and younger soldiers were arriving. “Dad those 18 and 19 year old kids need someone seasoned like me to help them get use to the place,” the younger Chaney told his father. The elder Chaney, a World War II and Korea veteran, and his wife Frances were nervous about a second tour. “You know Steve really believed in what he was doing and how can you talk anyone out of that?” the elder Chaney concluded. In 2013 following Captain Chaney’s induction into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame, I ask Steve’s friend Tim Lyons why he has diligently campaigned for the honors Chaney has so richly deserved? The answer he gave is something we should all ponder on this Veteran’s Day. Lyons said;
“In the 50’s and 60’s we were young, idealistic and passionate about life–not unlike the generations before us but our generation was different. Steve had always talked about joining the Army. He believed in the inherent goodness of America and truly believed he had a responsibility to help protect America. When he gave up everyone’s dream of playing football for Notre Dame, enduring hurtful criticism from some people in Marion, we could only be in awe of him. Not many people are that true to themselves He died a hero. His parents bore his death with grace and dignity. Steve and his parents deserved to have Steve’s memory last as long as possible. Because of them I needed to keep his memory alive,” Lyons said.
Author’s Note: This article is an amalgamation of two previous articles I wrote for the Catholic Report and the Catholic Times in 2005 and 2013 respectively, as well as information recently added.