"Don had a great sense of humor and got along with everyone," says Joe Diaz, an old friend who still lives in Gila Bend. "We played a lot of ball together, football and basketball, and he knew how to get after it. Good guy, normal guy. Until 'Nam."
Donald wasn't much for schoolwork, though a sister recalls him toiling over arithmetic problems, his tongue sticking out in concentration.
He dropped out of school after ninth grade and found work at a Gila Bend fast-food joint as an assistant cook, which he enjoyed.
In Gila Bend, there wasn't much of a ladder for a dropout to climb. Donald worked, flirted with the girls, played ball, drank beer and dreamed of a better place, with brighter lights, bigger buildings, prettier ladies.
In 1966, the 18-year-old heard the Army was interested in people like him. It sounded like a chance to make something of himself. But what he would become is not what he had in mind.
In August 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara announced a bold new program at a long-forgotten press conference.
McNamara held out hope that "Project 100,000" would salvage tens of thousands of "America's subterranean poor" by luring them into the armed services.
At any other time, most of the 100,000--actually, 354,000 became soldiers before the program ended in 1971--wouldn't have qualified for service. But the war effort was escalating, and the military needed bodies.
Recruiters swept through inner cities and rural outposts, signing up dropouts and even legally retarded young men.
McNamara called his recruits "New Standards Men." Some in the military scorned them as "McNamara's Moron Corps."
Touting the military as an opportunity for remedial education and an escape from poverty made for a convincing pitch. But in fact the recruits provided an abundant supply of cannon fodder, and meant fewer sons of the privileged had to be drafted.
For a majority of the recruits, Project 100,000 was a one-way ticket to Vietnam, where they died at a rate double that of other soldiers. Forty-one percent of the project's soldiers were black, compared with 12 percent of the rest of the armed forces.
Donald Ellison joined the Army on September 21, 1966. At Fort Ord in California, he was taught to use a machine gun.
His next stop was Vietnam. Donald was a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday.
Donald rarely talked about Vietnam, and available records only hint at what he endured there. But those records leave no doubt he faced fierce combat for most of his five months in country.
Few places were more dangerous in 1967 than Quang Tri Province, a hellhole of booby traps, hand-to-hand combat, vermin and oppressive humidity. Located just south of the demilitarized zone, it housed the forward headquarters of the 3rd Marine Division, to which Donald was assigned to provide support.
Donald later told doctors he'd practically lived on a large truck, riding from battle to battle. PFC Ellison would earn the Gallantry Cross With Palm Unit Citation, the Good Conduct Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon.
Donald sent his mother money from Vietnam, telling her to spend it as she saw fit. The Ellisons proudly used the gift as a down payment on property in Gila Bend.
But Donald's family had no idea what he was going through. One historian wrote: "The Marine war along the DMZ was devastating in its intensity, numbing in its length, appalling in its casualties and inspiring in its heroism."
Donald discovered new ways of coping. Like many peers, he started smoking potent Vietnamese marijuana.
"He stated when he used pot, God possessed him and would bring him home safely," a doctor wrote of Donald in August 1967.
By his own account, Donald awoke July 31, 1967, and smoked a joint. That afternoon, he attacked and apparently cut a corporal with a razor.
He was placed in restraints, tranquilized, then evacuated by helicopter to the USS Repose, a medical ship. There, doctors determined that Donald had slipped into an "acute catatonic state."
Official accounts of his attack on his fellow soldier are scarce, and Donald never told his family about it. One tantalizing clue comes in a report filed the day after the assault, in which the Army adjudged his behavior "line of duty [connected], not due to own misconduct."
The Army shipped Donald to a military hospital in San Francisco, where a psychiatrist noted Donald's cryptic account of the violent incident: "God had hit him in the side and forced him to cut the other soldier's throat. He expressed the hope that if God ever spoke to him again, he would not be hit so hard in the side."