By Jean Shanley
Special to the Tribune
Editor’s note: The theme of the Memorial Day observance in downtown Meadville today is “50 years after the beginning of Vietnam.” In honoring that theme, the Tribune presents this profile of one of Crawford County’s more prominent and exceptional Vietnam veterans.
When Bob Eiler of Conneaut Lake arrived in Vietnam, he wore no military uniform and had no weapons.
He was part of the Special Forces of the United States Army and was sent to Vietnam in 1961, shortly after he enlisted in the Army after graduation from Conneaut Lake High School.
He reflected on that duty during a recent interview about his service in Vietnam and with the Veterans of Foreign Wars since his return.
Although they had no weapons, the Special Forces did have cash given to them by the CIA to purchase guns and artillery from the Vietnamese who weren’t supposed to know they were Americans. “Like we didn’t look different,” he said, with a half-laugh.
Actually the war didn’t officially start until 1963, but by then Eiler had already been wounded twice (once in 1962 and once in 1963) and had received two Purple Hearts. The second injury happened when he was on a backup assault mission. As a crew chief, he had flown 100 such missions — first over the jungles of North Vietnam and later above the plains and rice paddies of the south. At the last mission, communist guerillas fired at the crew from a village below and Eiler was wounded in the face and shoulder. The Vietnamese soldier sitting beside him was killed.
After he was wounded, Eiler cut down four guerillas with carbine fire. The helicopter went down, but was repaired and in 20 minutes the injured (including Eiler) were flown to the field hospital at Scottrang base of the U.S. 93rd Transportation Co. He sustained a serious injury and his eye was bandaged for 24 days while it healed.
Although his eye healed, Eiler has other medical issues that are a result of contact with Agent Orange in Vietnam. He is a diabetic, has cancer of the foot and now considered totally disabled. He also has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, which causes nightmares frequently.
He has had to take shots daily for the cancer treatments, plus an additional treatment every four months. When he asked his doctor when he could stop taking the cancer treatment shots, the reply was, “When do you want to stop living?” Eiler isn’t ready to stop living yet.
His medical issues finally caught up to him in 2000, and he was told he had between two and five years to live. Thirteen years after that prognosis, he is pleased that was one time the doctors were wrong.
He believes he was selfish when he went to Vietnam, but losing 17 team members over two years changed him.
“They couldn’t come home. I feel obligated to speak on their behalf,” he said.
Eiler served as Pennsylvania’s Veterans of Foreign Wars commander in 2005-’06, the first Crawford Countian to hold that position. He still serves as state finance chairman, audit chairman and is state liaison to the legislative committee on the national Council of the VFW. He has just been elected to his third four-year term to that position. As liaison, he has testified before subcommittees of Congress three times.
The reaction from Congress has been positive, he said, noting he believes both the Bush and the Obama administrations have been very good for veterans.
He laughed as he said his work “keeps me busy and out of my medical problems.” Although he receives benefits for total disability, Eiler said he’d much rather have his health. “I can earn money; you can’t buy good health,” he said.
He said, however, that the federal Veterans Administration provides the best medical care he could ever imagine and his medical treatments have been very good.
Regarding diabetes, Eiler learned that more Vietnam veterans than any other group of veterans have had diabetic problems because of the contamination by Agent Orange.
Post-traumatic stress syndrome is another condition, which has affected many veterans, including Eiler. At one time during his service, his unit ran out of ammunition and had to “run for our lives.” He still has nightmares about running out of ammunition and they did not subside until he got a gun and ammunition and put it beside his bed so when he woke from the nightmare, he could see the ammunition.
He enjoys his work with the veterans’ organizations to see what can be done to keep the benefits for active military, especially the National Guard. He said even though they were federalized during recent wars, they don’t get the same benefits. He said the Guard has been really hit during the War on Terror with some members going as many as five or six tours of duty to the war zones.
He said the VFW is very active, in the spirit of its motto, “No One Does More for Veterans,” including lobbying for benefits and offering assistance to families of veterans on active duty.
The VFW has conducted a diabetes fundraising walk from Erie to Pittsburgh every year. Eiler marched in that walk for 13 years, but no longer can walk because of his health. But does participate in other ways. He is active on the board of the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Erie and the board of Sharing and Caring, an organization that each September takes a total of 2,000 veterans from veterans’ homes out for a cruise with special gifts in Pittsburgh.
He spends about a week each month in Harrisburg as well as going across the state for other duties. Eiler also serves on a subcommittee of the VA.
He is quite pleased to see the military welcomed home by the country after serving in the war because he knows that not all Vietnam veterans were honored that way.
“I have mixed emotions,” he said of the Vietnam War, pointing out that he didn’t know of any battles that the Americans lost, but believes the politicians wouldn’t let them win the war. “I thought we were doing the right thing,” he added.
He also is pleased that the effort continues to find the remains of those left behind, something he believes is important because finding the remains offers families some closure.
“They deserve that,” he said.
He also has served on the board of directors of Conneaut Lake Park Volunteer Fire Department for five years, the last three as vice president.
He remains a member of the Hopewell VFW where he first became involved, having served as commander for several years.
After his military service, Eiler lived in the Pittsburgh area for many years. He was a pilot and also owned a store.
His home there burned in 2005 while he was walking on the Diabetes Walk. The furnace developed an electrical short and his home burned to the ground.
He now lives at Conneaut Lake, having recently finished building a home on the lakefront near Conneaut Lake Park. He also still owns the home his parents, the late Robert (Cork) and Dorothy Eiler, lived in near Conneaut Lake Park.
Eiler and his wife, Karen, who died three years ago, have two daughters, Tracy and Tammy.