Scotty Ratliff’s life changed forever near Dak To, Vietnam, on the “hot-damned hot – 120 to 125 degrees” day of July 23, 1967.
He was assigned as an assistant gunner on an M60 light machine gun crew when his unit got into heavy contact. When his gunner was killed, he took over without hesitation. Then a bullet tore through his right lung and arm.
The bullet created a classic “sucking chest wound” – a wound to the lungs that prevents the injured from drawing a breath. Ratliff’s medic kept him alive by sealing the wound with a piece of plastic packaging from a radio battery until he could be evacuated.
He was initially treated at Qin Yong Field Hospital in Vietnam, then transferred to the large general hospital at Camp Drake, Japan, and eventually to Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver where he would spend nine months recovering. With severe nerve damage to his right arm, a doctor at Fitzsimons gave him a brutal choice: either have his arm amputated, or leave it but never use it again. Ratliff chose to keep his arm, withered as it was.
Ratliff grew up on his family’s horse ranch north of Pavilion, with his nearest neighbors 12 miles away. He graduated Pavilion High School in 1961 and then attended the University of Wyoming.
The U.S. Army drafted him at the age of 24 in 1966. He attended basic training at Fort Bliss and advanced infantry training at the infamous “Tiger Land” at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Within the ranks of the U.S. Army, Fort Polk is high up in the running as the single most miserable Army installation.
Its climate is brutally hot and humid, it is alternately sandy with the occasional patch of swamp and quicksand, vegetation consists of poison oak, ivy and sumac, and it is liberally infested with poisonous snakes, spiders and ticks. The Fort Polk mosquitoes are legendary. Trained as an infantryman, Ratliff “liked Vietnam better than Fort Polk.”
He arrived in the 90th Replacement Battalion in Saigon in March 1967 and was eventually assigned to the 25th Infantry “Tropic Lightning” Division, then fighting northwest of Saigon.
Ratliff’s devastating injury came after just four months in the country.
Finally discharged in May 1968, “right-handed and with his right arm crippled,” he had to figure out how to live left-handed. When asked if it was hard to learn to do everything with his left hand, he shrugged and said, “It’s not difficult when you don’t have any choice.”
Learning to live
Ratliff had begun drinking heavily in Vietnam, and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after his four months of combat and life-threatening injuries in Vietnam. It was all but inevitable that he continued his drinking habit once discharged, much to his detriment.
Imbued with a powerful will and determination because of his Wyoming ranch upbringing, “a strong spiritual belief in his creator and a close connection with horses and ranching,” Ratliff stopped using alcohol. He has now been sober since 1979, for no less than 38 years.
Once discharged, he remained in Denver and took every opportunity to benefit from his G.I. Bill educational privileges. He earned an associate’s degree in business from Arapaho Community College in Denver.
Continuing his education, he earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Black Hills State College in Spearfish, South Dakota, and a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Wyoming. He taught two years at the Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota. He worked as a counselor at Central Wyoming College for 25 years.
Dedicated to service
Ratliff, a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, went on to a remarkable career of service to the Arapaho and Shoshone Indian Nations, the Wind River Reservation and the State of Wyoming. He served in the Wyoming State House as a legislator from 1980 to 1992.
In 1990 he received the Human Rights Award from the Wyoming Counseling Association. He co-authored a school textbook with Janet Flynn on “Tribal Government at the Wind River Reservation.”
He has also served as a member of the Wyoming State Council on Juvenile Justice. Ratliff was recognized as the 2012 Minority Small Business Champion of the Year by the Wyoming Small Business Development Center.
He has served as the President of the Board for the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame, and remains on its Board. Since 2002 he has served as a special assistant to his friend and former colleague U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, advising on issues at the Wind River Reservation. Ratliff continues his service today as a member of the Shoshone Tribal Economic Board, the Wyoming State Board of Education and the National Advisory Council on Indian Education.
Ratliff will tell anyone that his “has been a wonderful life,” even with his severe combat wound that nearly cost him his life and permanently crippled him 50 years ago.
His family includes is mother, Katy; three “wonderful” daughters, Shawna, Shanell and Staci; a sister, Janis; six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren; and he still remains in excellent health. Many see him as an inspiration to the citizens and youth of the Cowboy State.