A hero's heart
By RANDY GONZALES
Joe Stroud knows bravery when he sees it.
He saw it Aug. 18, 1968.
Stroud, a captain in the Army, was flying a Cobra gunship near Chu Chi, South Vietnam, when a call came over the radio to assist what was believed to be a wounded American soldier who was part of a long-range reconnaissance patrol which was being extracted.
Other helicopters attempted to extract the soldier from the landing zone but suffered casualties from enemy fire and had to leave the hot LZ.
Warrant Officer James Eisenhour, who was piloting a nearby Huey on another mission, heard the plea for help and headed for the LZ. Disregarding his own safety, Eisenhour attempted the rescue while knowing the chances of survival were slim. His helicopter suffered multiple hits from enemy automatic weapons fire, and Eisenhour was fatally wounded. He was 22.
Stroud's fire team of two attack helicopters also headed for the hot LZ, but seconds behind Eisenhour. Stroud radioed to wait for 15 or 30 seconds and he would be in position to provide covering fire. Instead, Stroud believes Eisenhour believed he couldn't wait going into the LZ because he feared for the soldier's life.
"That minute or so of my life, where I now know James D. Eisenhour (was) flying that helicopter to go pick that soldier up out of that landing zone, was without doubt the bravest single action I have ever seen in my life," Stroud said. "I define bravery as you know you're in danger, but you do something that has to be done, even though you realize you may be killed or severely injured.
"Eisenhour knew exactly what the situation was when he started that approach into the landing zone, because he knew the first two helicopters had people killed or wounded, and he chose to go in anyway."
Ironically, the soldier in the LZ turned out to be an enemy combatant, and not an American. But nobody knew that at the time.
"All those people that got killed and wounded because somebody made a mistake," Stroud said. "That stuff happens in war. War is very confusing."
Eisenhour, who grew up in La Crosse, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day.
"I remain amazed at his courage and the courage of his crew," said Morris Miller, who also served in the 240th Assault Helicopter Company, and was on the mission to extract the reconnaissance team that day. "He was a real American hero."
Years later, Stroud found Eisenhour's brother, Mark, on the Internet. They lived just a few hours apart in Arizona, and eventually Stroud met Mark and family members.
"My desire to talk to them was to tell them how brave I thought Jim was," Stroud said. "I had an opportunity to learn a lot about Jim. Everything I learned confirmed to me that Jim Eisenhour was a special person, and he did a very special thing that day."
Steve Beckner, who was Eisenhour's door gunner on numerous missions, was on the same mission, but on another chopper, the day Jim died.
"I can only say Jim was one hell of a man, and I considered him a friend," Beckner said.
Beckner took a photo of Eisenhour wearing a straw hat, surrounded by Vietnamese children around his helicopter.
"He was a very thoughtful and caring man," Beckner said. "He was pleasant and really cared for the kids over there."
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Jim Eisenhour graduated from La Crosse High School in 1963 and Mark in 1967. Jim, who was an all-around athlete in high school, played football at Fort Hays State University before deciding to leave college and join the Army to learn how to fly helicopters.
"He loved flying that helicopter," Mark Eisenhour said.
Jim Eisenhour, who hoped to fly helicopters in Alaska after he got out of the service, was 6-foot, 2-inches with brown hair and an athletic build.
"He was considered, in my way of thinking, the golden boy of sports," Mark said. "He liked basketball; he liked football; he liked track; he liked to play golf."
Mark joined the Navy out of high school and was aboard a supply ship off the coast of South Vietnam while Jim was in the Army flying helicopters. Jim was assigned to temporary duty in the Philippines while Mark's ship was re-supplying there, and they had a chance to reunite briefly. Jim was killed shortly after their reunion.
"When I look back on it now, I consider it a blessing, because I was the last one who saw him alive," said Mark, now 64.
* * *
Jim Eisenhour and Kathy Pivonka were high school sweethearts in La Crosse. Jim worked on the farm owned by Kathy's father. They were married and had a 2-year-old girl, Tara, when Jim was shipped to Vietnam.
Tara, 48, now is married and lives in Lawrence. Her mother, 68, lives with Tara and her husband, Bill Vereen, and their two teenage boys -- one of them named James, after his grandfather.
"I have been so fortunate to have so many people talk to me about my father my whole life," Tara said. "He died when I was 2, but there's never a time in my life that I didn't feel like I didn't know my dad."
Tara has pictures of her father around the house, and she listens occasionally to an audio tape Jim sent home from Vietnam. Her father's grave is in Ransom, alongside other family members, and she gets there as often as she can.
Members of her dad's outfit in Vietnam always send Tara birthday cards. Their mission is to make sure their fellow soldiers who died are never forgotten.
Tara tells her children the story of how their grandfather died.
"I try to keep his memory alive for them," Tara said. "He was fun-loving, and I think he would enjoy having grandchildren, and he would be so engaged in what they were doing."
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Kathleen Peet was married to another helicopter pilot, Harvey Addison, when she knew Jim "Ike" Eisenhour during training.
"I looked up to 'Ike.' ... He was just clean-cut, down to earth, warm and somehow special," she said.
"Ike" wrote to Kathleen after her husband was killed in a mid-air crash in Vietnam on June 25, 1968. Kathleen said when she learned of Eisenhour's death shortly thereafter, it was like re-living her husband's death.
"It was very hard to deal with, as I identified with this little family," Peet said.
* * *
Tara said she knows Memorial Day has different meanings for different people.
"I think there are two groups of people," Tara said. "There are the people that decorate and remember, and there are the people that have a three-day weekend.
"In my house, my dad is so much a presence on a regular basis, I don't think Memorial Day is a special recognition. I have pictures of him all over the house. He's here every day."
* * *
Mark Eisenhour said his relationship with his older brother was typical while growing up.
"Like most big brothers, he didn't want to have anything to do with his little brother," Mark said. "But you let somebody threaten my well-being, and there he was."
Now, all Mark has left are memories.
"Jim would be 69 this year," he said. "However, he is forever 22."