Ron Dolecki
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HUNTINGTOWN, Md. – Bullets rain down and hammer the dirt in front of where a young U.S. Army Specialist named Ronald Dolecki stands. On July 12, 1965, Dolecki, a helicopter pilot named Jack Kalmbach, and an interpreter, had just made their second stop on their mapping mission in the northern tip of Ethiopia when they were ambushed.

“When the shooting started, I didn’t even know what was going on,” Dolecki told TheBayNet.com. “Before I could take cover, there was a guy standing at the tail-boom of the helicopter, and he had a rifle that was pointed right at me and I just froze.” 

Remains of the burned helicopter. (Photo from Ron Dolecki)

Following this encounter, the group of armed captors would take all usable materials from their helicopter and later set it on fire. 

Over what Dolecki said was approximately 10 days of unheard-of conditions, the three men were marched hundreds and hundreds of miles by those identified as members of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) into Sudan. ELF was a group of defectors from Ethiopia who had caused turmoil in the region for years while fighting for independence.

“Every time we would see search planes, these guys would make us hide under the brush at gunpoint,” Dolecki said. “We crossed into the Sudan, and that’s where these guys enjoyed sanctuary.”

After nearly losing hope several times, the group decided that one person would have to try and escape. Dolecki was the one chosen.

Ron Dolecki (Left) with one of his crew members.

“We decided okay one of us might be able to make it out of here if the other two remain in plain sight, and somehow I got selected,” he explained. “I was the youngest, and I guess the strongest.”

While fighting for his life and braving the harsh wilderness of Sudan, Dolecki would cite several “miracles” that he credits with saving his life. Those included finding a randomly placed well where he got water and the kind acts of several individuals he encountered along the way.

A member of a village that he stumbled upon would eventually guide Dolecki to a police post along the border of Sudan, where he would then be transported by the U.S. Army back to a hospital in safe territory. Kalmbach would later be released by the guerrilla soldiers, and the interpreter who had also been captured would decide to join ELF’s resistance.

“I have a lot of problems trying to wrap my head around that, but I guess there are just some things that you can never understand,” Dolecki said.

Fast forward to 2004, Ron’s wife of nearly 50 years, Linda Dolecki, thought it would be a pleasant surprise to submit Ron’s name for a Prisoner of War(POW) Medal. While she had thought she would be doing a kind deed, and her husband was beyond grateful, the response she would receive would send the couple on an 18-year-long tirade of fighting against the U.S. Army’s bureaucracy.

What Ron had hoped would be a reasonably justified rejection from the military turned out to be what he described as a poorly supported excuse.

“It really made me angry when I saw the reason that the Army said ‘well you’re not eligible for a POW medal because the people who captured you were bandits… as opposed to guerrilla soldiers,” he explained.

Dolecki would argue that several major security bureaus in the United States had identified ELF as the group who had captured them in 1965.

Declassified document. (Photo from Ron Dolecki)

In a declassified document sent to the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and several other organizations, the Army communicated that the ELF had left a letter saying they “set fire to[the] helicopter and [had] taken crew off with them.”

Over those next 18 years, Dolecki would go back and forth with the Army as they used what he described as their “bag of excuses” to deny him the medal. It wasn’t until he enlisted the help of a military awards lawyer named Dwight Mears, and several prominent members of Congress, that he would get through.

It was finally determined that the Army had been failing to comply with a law passed by Congress in 2013. Written into the recently passed 2022 National Defense Authorization Act was specific language to help ensure the accurate application of that law going forward, which would specifically help secure a medal for Dolecki.

“The Army has finally recognized what we’ve long known: that Ron Dolecki is a hero whose bravery in the face of his captivity saved lives,” U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen said in a statement. “For years, alongside SPC Dolecki, we have fought for this recognition – which was bogged down by an error in the application of the law. While this is long overdue, no amount of time can take away from the incredible service and courage displayed by SPC Dolecki that this Prisoner of War Medal reflects, and I was proud to assist in securing this recognition.”

Dolecki said he is excited to finally be receiving his medal. He said that he was told Van Hollen’s office currently has the medal and is working to coordinate a time and place to officially present it to him.

“Some people get medals they don’t deserve, and some people deserve medals they don’t get,” he said. “And they said that’s just the way it goes, so go with the flow. You know, they give you the medal, be proud of it, and so that’s what I’m gonna do.”

Contact our news desk at news@thebaynet.com

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jack Kalmbach sadly passed away in 2015, and has been honored posthumously with a medal.

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4 Comments

  1. This hero deserves his medal & recognition . He should’ve received it many many years ago.
    He was a prisoner in the country where he & others were sent to fight a war.This sounds like more burecratic B S! You all owe him. Shame on you all for making this hero wait!

  2. Awesome story. Would love to read more stories like this. Congratulations Mr. Dolecki and thank you for your service.

  3. I read and watched the video of this story on youtube……what? No picture of the medal?

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