VIDEO: Rodney RileyVideo and Editing by Lawrence Dorsey
It was cold one morning when they dropped me off
The brand new uniform free of cost
The gun that they gave me had been used before
By somebody’s baby out there … somewhere... in someone else's war
--- From the song “Soldier” written by Rodney Riley.
The year was 1970, and Rodney Riley was fresh out of high school and living it up in a rhythm and blues band called Approximately 5.
“We played a lot around this area, from Savannah, down to Brunswick,” said Riley, a guitar player and singer. “The reason we called it Approximately 5 was because we never knew how many (of us) would show up,” he smiled. “They were a great bunch of guys. I still see them.”
But the carefree lifestyle of a 19-year-old musician was coming to an end. Riley remembers the date: June 1. “My number came up on the first draw,” he said of the draft lottery.
Riley was headed to Vietnam.
Other band members were drafted as well. “Tommy Davis, the guy who got me in the band was a helicopter pilot who got shot down nine times and lived to tell about it,” he said.
Riley says a lot of Vietnam veterans, such as him, don’t like to talk about their time spent there. They want to forget the horrors, and because of that, Riley declined to go into specifics or tell “war stories,” as he put it. Instead, he put his thoughts and emotions to lyrics for the song “Soldier” which he penned in the late 1990s and excerpts are dispersed throughout this article.
I’m not ashamed to say that I’m scared to death
Only fools and heroes say I have no fear
Let this bad dream be over, and get us out of here
Born in Charleston, S.C., Riley’s family was synonymous with military service. His father was a flight instructor in the Navy in World War II. His grandfather served in World War I. His oldest brother went to Vietnam before him, and another brother served in Korea during peacetime. One would think with that military pedigree, it might have been expected or encouraged for Riley to follow suit.
But, Riley said, “My mother was very upset (when he was drafted) because my oldest brother had just gotten home from Vietnam” and now another son was being sent.
It didn’t take long for Riley to get a taste of what was in store for him and other soldiers in the Vietnam War era. Now in the second decade of an unpopular war, he witnessed death and was treated by his fellow citizens with disrespect.
While at an airport in San Francisco on his way to Vietnam, Riley described: “They marched us up to this tarmac where Chinook helicopters were taking us over to Oakland (a processing center) and I saw these planes with all these flag-draped caskets being taken to a big warehouse.”
He said “It knocked the wind out of you” seeing that.
“A year and a half later I came home, walked through that same area at the airport -- there were protestors everywhere. I got hit in the head with a Coke bottle and took some stiches, and wiped the spit off my face.”
He survived his two and a half years in Vietnam with his sense of humor and his guitar.
Days keep dragging on one by one
Scratching on calendars not much fun
When you’re 10 years older than you were last week
God give me a shower and some dry socks and a bed to sleep
“You grow up. You take care of things,” Riley said, reflecting on his time in battle. “The comradery was just incredible … amazing. I am still in touch with a lot of these guys. I hear their voice on the phone. It’s like nothing has changed.”
Riley opted to leave the military when his tour of duty was over. He said he was up for the rank of E5, but chose to decline it. He was awarded two Bronze Stars and an Air Medal with V.
Throughout the years, Riley didn’t want to think much or dwell on his time in Vietnam. He chose not to belong to any veteran organizations because “I don’t like to sit around telling war stories.”
Things changed, however, when he was approached in the early 2000s to share his music for a Vietnam War documentary. Prior to this time, Riley had split time over a three-decade period owning and operating what he calls honky-tonk bars in Liberty County (Midway’s the Corner Bar in the late ‘70s, and El Rod’s in Midway and Hinesville) and having success as a musician.
In the early ‘80s the Rodney C. Riley Band, a mix of rock, R&B and country, toured frequently with such acts as Joe Cocker, U2 (before they were famous), Jackson Browne, Peter Gabriel, Carole King, and Ry Cooder, Riley said. He had a record contract and released two albums.
As for that eventful meeting for the Vietnam War documentary, Riley said producers came to his restaurant and he let them hear a song he wrote called Soldier.
“They went crazy about that song and called me a few weeks later asking me to produce a theme song for the film, which I gladly did,” he said.
The film was released in 2003 and is titled “In the Shadow of the Blade.” According to a description on the DVD, it “follows a 10,000-mile journey of a battle-scared Huey helicopter unit into America’s backyards to hear the untold stories of Vietnam vets and their families who waited for them to come home.”
Riley played the song Soldier for this reporter and at the end tearfully remarked, “That still wears me out. There’s nothing phony about it. I’m proud of that piece.”
He added, “That’s it (the war) in a nutshell.”
It was a cold lonely evening when I came back home
A warm feeling filled my bones
Everything’s the same way it used to be
Everything’s the same way that it used to be
Except for me
Today, at age 68, Riley and his wife Rebecca continue to make Hinesville their home. No longer a business owner or touring musician, Riley stays busy doing something that was a first-love – something interrupted by war and his music interests.
He loved painting as a youngster, and started up again about eight years ago, he said.
In his garage, dozens of acrylic paintings adorn the walls – each as colorful and eclectic as its creator. Most are music legends such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Hank Williams and James Brown.
But one may stand out more, and knowing Riley’s past, has a special significance.
It’s of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader, depicted in an unflattering portrayal, offering up with his hand a crude gesture.
Well I’ve had my taste of the battle, and I’m not scared anymore