An American hero—a real hero, by old standards, before the word “hero” became overused—was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on January 17. Those who celebrated the life of Lt. Col. (Ret.) Robert James Eitel paid homage to the best of what this nation produces.
Eitel was born in New Jersey in 1930, seven years after his working-class parents immigrated here from Germany. He was a big guy and a superb athlete. At Adelphi College, where he is a member of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, he lettered in five sports, one of only two men ever to do so. Chief among those sports was football, in which Eitel played a dominating offensive tackle. His line coach was a guy by the name of Al Davis, who a decade later in Oakland would start a half-century career of famous piracy in professional football. Eitel’s teammates recall Davis building his then-new concept of “zone blocking” around Eitel’s prowess, and introducing revolutionary play-call “audibles” confident in the knowledge that Eitel and his line-mates could adjust. More than 50 years later, Davis would describe Eitel as “the prototype lineman of his time.”
But Eitel wasn’t destined for the NFL. He was an ROTC student, and the U.S. Marines would be his calling. He was sent to the Korean War zone, to Japan, but the war ended before he saw combat. He learned to fly helicopters—the most advanced, “experimental” aircraft, state of the art. He survived a crash landing in the Caribbean. By January 1960, he was serving as pilot to a man named Ike on Marine One, the presidential whirlybird. The ever-formal Eisenhower always saluted him. Eitel flew the president all over, including on a long trip through several South American nations, and then, for another two-and-a-half years, flew John Kennedy as well. But Kennedy never engaged him personally; compared with Eisenhower, the new president gave off an air, Eitel would say, “like a fraternity brother, very wealthy.”
Kennedy died, Vietnam erupted, and choppers were at the center of the action. Eitel, now a major and one of the Marine Corps’ top pilots, was sent into combat in February of 1965. He flew more than 80 missions in six months, earning numerous citations. Stateside again, he served as chief flight instructor at Pensacola Naval Air Station—and then, in 1969, already promoted a year early to lieutenant colonel, he was sent back to ’Nam, where he flew yet another 50 missions over the space of a full year. Then came the day when his chopper, ferrying South Vietnamese troops to a new drop zone along the Cambodian border, was shot down.
The crew was officially “missing” for days. Intermittently pursued by the Viet Cong, in a place where they could not be safely picked up, Eitel navigated his men through the jungle on foot. The enemy didn’t get them—but there were other dangers, deadly ones. At one point, the lead man suddenly went into spasms. A tree viper got him, straight on, right across the face. He was dead in five minutes. Horrified, Eitel and the rest of his men pressed on—and made it to the next drop zone where they could be rescued.
Eitel was awarded the Bronze Star. The Republic of Vietnam gave him its Medal of Honor.
Back in the states, three more years of high-level flight instruction ensued. Retired from the Marines after 20 years, Eitel taught Junior ROTC and coached football in New Orleans, before embarking on a second, highly successful career as a stockbroker. He raised two fine children—one of whom, Robert Eitel Jr., served as deputy general counsel in George W. Bush’s Department of Education, and later penned an influential study cited favorably by, among others, columnist George Will.
Lt. Col. Eitel was a big man with an even bigger personality. In his ability to fill a room as well as in military distinction, he was very much in the tradition of “The Great Santini.” But unlike the real-life Lt. Col. Conrad, with whose family the Eitels were friends, Eitel in private was (in the words of Bob Jr.) “always supportive, always loving, always generous to his children and his friends.” He told great stories; he laughed deeply; he was warm and welcoming, a delight to converse with, for all of his nearly 83 years.
And he loved, just loved, these United States.
At Arlington, the ceremony fell on a good day, in a short interlude between two appearances of the now-infamous “polar vortex.” The celebrators followed as the urn was carried under the arch, carefully transferred to a caisson, and led in solemnity to a spot near the gravesite near row upon row of beautifully maintained plots honoring hundreds of thousands of other brave American dead.
A full honor guard, in darkest blue, marched, and then stood, reverently, perhaps 80-strong, as the chaplain gave pitch-perfect remarks. The Marine band, probably another 20-strong, in brightest red, played “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” Slowly, meticulously, six Marines folded taut the glorious flag into its final triangle shape, and presented it to Mrs. Eitel. At a little distance, in perfect time, other Marines fired a 21-gun salute. A gentle wind, wintry but not unbearably frigid, blew over the hallowed fields.
Oh wind of heaven, by thy might
Save all who dare the eagle’s flight
And keep them by thy watchful care
From every peril in the air.
This is the right way to honor American heroes. Robert James Eitel, rest in peace.
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