Editor’s Note: This article is part of an occasional series that will tell the stories of our local veterans.
The first time Donald “Dinky” Conley flew on a plane was in 1983.
Then, two years after graduating from Page County High School, he boarded an airliner bound for Army basic training. Destination: Fort Benning, Ga.
The second time he flew a plane, Pvt. Conley was also to jump out of it. It was morning during the third week of the Army’s airborne school.
Conley was standing around the airport with his buddies from basic training and infantry school when the fear quickly took hold. He looked at his fellow soldiers.
“Guys, I can’t jump out of an airplane,” he told them. “I’ve only ridden in a plane once.”
After taking off his parachute, he approached his jump master instructors and said, “I don’t want to do this.”
Conley said his buddy from Richmond intervened and tried to put his mind at ease.
“Dinky, I know you,” he said. “If we were in combat, you would go anywhere with us. Just follow me out the door. That’s all you have to do.”
Conley put his parachute back on. As the jump instructors were checking him over, they told him, “You can quit on the ground, but once you get in that plane, there is only one way out and that’s up there.”
“OK, I understand,” Conley replied.
Once the plane reached jump altitude, 1,500 feet, soldiers started exiting the four-engine turboprop C-130 transport aircraft one by one. With his buddy in front, Conley made his way to the door. His lifeline jumped first.
Conley’s heart began to pound even harder. As he peered out the door, something tugged the back of his collar. It was the instructor pulling him back. “We ran out of drop zone,” the jumpmaster yelled. “You will be the first one out on the next pass.”
“Partner, I could have died right there,” Conley said.
After the plane circled around, the jumpmaster asked him, “Are you scared?”
“Yes, jumpmaster!” Conley replied. The instructor screamed back, “You get the hell off my plane!”
The red light turned green. The instructor walloped Conley on the rear.
“I closed both eyes and out the door I went,” he said.
Fear gave way to a quiet, calm feeling.
“It was complete silence,” Conley said. “I opened my eyes, I looked. I had a parachute, my other buddies are out in the air with me. I thought, ‘Man, this ain’t too bad at all.’ ”
He survived his first jump. After completing the rest of them, including a night jump, Conley was awarded his jump wings.
“I could never have been more proud than that,” he said. “I tell people all the time I was 6 feet tall until I jumped out of an airplane.”
To Serve, Protect
You may recognize his face. But, the name may not sound familiar.
That’s because it usually has “chief” in front it.
Conley has been Dayton police chief for the last seven years. Jumping out of airplanes is now just a memory the 50-year-old proudly displays on his wall at the DPD.
After being honorably discharged as an E-4 from the famed 82 Airborne Division in 1986, he found himself back in Shenandoah County doing construction.
Then a friend, who was the former chief of police in Elkton, talked to him about becoming a police officer. However, Conley wasn’t sure that was what he wanted to do and there weren’t any job openings. He considered going back into the Army.
“I actually thought about going back to the recruiter,” he said. “I already talked to my mom about it. She wasn’t real thrilled that I was thinking about going back in the Army because she made me call her every time I had to make a jump; before and after to let her know I was OK.”
Like many veterans, Conley missed the friendships he had made.
“You miss your brothers, and that’s what you were,” Conley said. “You were brothers-in-arms. You would take care of each other. One guy could be broke.
But, if you had money, he had money. … That camaraderie is the biggest thing I missed.”
But fate intervened and a job at the Massanutten Police Department opened up; soon, he found the camaraderie he was looking for.
After spending a year with the MPD, he spent five years with the Greene County Sheriff’s Office. Then, Conley joined the Madison County Sheriff’s Office where he spent another five years
In 1998, he joined the DPD where he has spent the last 14 years.
Though Conley never served in combat, he still went through the brutal training to prepare for it.
Stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C., his infantry unit, 2nd Battalion 505 CSC, trained in the woods whether it was snowing or sunny.
The unit spent weeks training in the California desert.
“During the day, you would burn up and, at night, you would freeze,” Conley said. “I was just amazed at the temperature change.”
Some of the toughest training he has ever experienced was when his unit spent three weeks training in the jungles of Panama.
“I have probably never done anything in my life as tough as that was,” Conley said. “It was hot. One moment, the sun would be shining, the next moment, it would be raining … you had black palm to contend with, which is a tree that had these long needles. And if you got into it, it would run into you like a splinter … All of this with a rucksack on your back and carrying your weapon.”
But, not all their training involved humping through the elements. But that doesn’t mean it was any easier.
Conley recalled one evening when his sergeant said, “Hey, for physical training in the morning, we are going down to the gym and we are going to do aerobics.”
He and his fellow soldiers laughed about it.
“We thought it was going to be a day off,” he said. “So, we go down to the gym and walk in and here is this little bitty lady. … She kicked our butts. We was sprawled out; people were throwing up; everything. … I mean, she humbled us.
“Of course, here we are, the infantry, big bad paratrooper guys, and here this little bitty girl just smoked us. We laughed about that for a long time.”
Contact Timothy Schumacher (540) 574-6265 or firstname.lastname@example.org.