Gary O’Neal was shot, stabbed, and riddled with shrapnel while serving his country over four decades in nations spanning the globe from Vietnam to Nicaragua. He hasn’t been awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat because he’s refused to accept it. “In my view the Purple Heart is an award in the enemy’s favor,” said O’Neal, who considers the medal signifying he “had been had by the enemy.”
Retired U.S. Special Forces Chief Warrant Officer Gary O’Neal spoke with First Nations Drum about his extraordinary life as one of his country’s most distinguished warriors. As a child growing up in the “Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota area,” O’Neal did not fit in well. He didn’t like school and desired only to be outside tracking, ranching, and horseback riding. “I was always doing things. I was a daredevil,” said O’Neal. “There wasn’t too much I wouldn’t do.”
O’Neal participated in 4H, young rodeo, loved sports, and excelled at running. “I liked the country life. I like cowboying,” said O’Neal. “I wasn’t big on cities.” His Irish-American father was a rancher and farmer who taught O’Neal mechanics at a young age. His paternal grandfather taught him Blacksmith skills and how to care for and handle horses – from shoeing to riding. “When I was 13, I was doing a man’s job on the ranch,” said O’Neal. “I was like a ranch foreman.”
O’Neal’s mother was Sioux First Nation. Growing up mixed race presented challenges for a young O’Neal. “Whites didn’t want anything to do with me because I was Indian, and Indians didn’t want nothing to do with me because I was white,” said O’Neal. “I didn’t like nobody.”
Though O’Neal didn’t grow up on Reservation, he was taught his Native culture when visiting his maternal grandparents living on Reservation.
O’Neal’s lineage has warrior ancestors on both his mother and father’s side, but culturally and spiritually he has always been driven toward his mother’s First Nation heritage. “I’ve had Chiefs from other tribes that would drag me out and show me things because they knew the mixed blood I had and the way my demeanor was on the Native side,” said O’Neal.
Spirituality is central to Native lore, explained O’Neal. “You never did anything that you didn’t give back. You didn’t pick up a stone without replacing it with something.” Prior to every hunt, there was prayer, dance, and a feast. The returning hunting party was greeted by a “thank you ceremony, prayer to the Creator thanking Him for food, and thanking animals for supplying us with food and warmth of clothes made from them. Everything was in prayer,” said O’Neal.
O’Neal successfully completed the Sundance – a four day and four night dance event purifying the mind, body, and spirit through medicines and sweat lodges. The Sioux warrior tradition is to protect children and secure their future by also protecting the elderly who pass down knowledge.
“You dance all day in the sun without food or water,” said O’Neal. “The warriors dance for the people, and it’s all in prayer. It’s so the people don’t have to suffer. They don’t have to go through pain. They don’t have to go through hunger. The warriors take that away from them.”
O’Neal’s Vision Quest took place on the same hallowed ground as done by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Fool’s Crow, and Black Elk – the historic and legendary warrior Chiefs of the Sioux Nation. O’Neal said he took the “old school” Native cultural teachings, which included the Native American warrior aspect, and put that together with the “warrior aspect of the Irish, because the Irish always fought. The English always used the Irish,” said O’Neal.
His father taught O’Neal how to handle guns and he often played with his dad’s rifles. “At 5, I had my first 410 shotgun and a .22 pump rifle. They’d give me rounds to go out and I’d get a squirrel or a rabbit.” said O’Neal. “When I brought it back, that’s what we ate.”
O’Neal’s warrior heritage on his father’s side of the family can be traced back to the home country and “Irish Rangers” in the time of William Wallace days in the late 13th century. O’Neal said his great grandfathers at the fourth and fifth generation back served in the Frontier Rangers – the oldest U.S. military unit. “My fifth great grandfather and his two sons signed the Oath of Allegiance and fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812,” said O’Neal. “So I’ve had a relation on my dad’s side all the way down to me serve in different wars that America has been in since the creation of America in 1776.”
O’Neal is a founding member of the Pentagon’s first antiterrorist team, was a member of the Golden Knights Parachuting Team, and was inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Georgia. He has authored a book – American Warrior: The True Story of a Legendary Ranger. “When I was in Central America, South America, working down there we had our enemies we was fighting,” began O’Neal. “They gave me that name, ‘Guerrero Americano,’ which means, ‘American Warrior.’ So that’s where I got that nickname. It kind of stuck with me.”
To be continued.