Memorial Day tribute: Lt. James Robert Kalsu
The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (aka The Wall), located in Washington, D.C., lists more than 58,000 names. Approximately 1,200 of these are listed as missing (MIAs, POWs, and others). I would venture to say that the vast majority of those soldiers each left behind scores of family members and friends who will be remembering them this Memorial Day.
Today I’d like to recognize the ultimate sacrifice of one of those soldiers: James Robert (Bob) Kalsu.
Bob was born in Oklahoma City, OK on April 13, 1945. An All-American offensive lineman at the University of Oklahoma in 1967, Bob was an eighth round draft pick by the Buffalo Bills in 1968. After a stellar rookie season, Bob put his pro football career on hold the following year to join the conflict in Vietnam. While friends pleaded with Bob to fulfill his service via the reserves, he declined. When Bob joined the ROTC while at Oklahoma, he gave his word that he would fulfill his military commitment via active duty.
Bob would leave for Vietnam in late 1969. Soon after he left, Bob’s wife Jan learned she was pregnant with their second child. In May of 1970, Bob was on one-week leave in Hawaii with Jan (who was seven months pregnant by this time) and 18-month old daughter Jill.
Sadly, it would be the last time the entire family would be together.
As he returned to Fire Support Base Ripcord in Vietnam, Bob would eagerly await the news of his second child being born. He knew in his heart of hearts that he would have a son. Two months after Bob returned to Ripcord, the base was undergoing its most intensive siege since its rebuilding began in March 1970. In July 1970, SPC. 4th Class Daniel Thompson shared his perspective of the Battle of FSB Ripcord (courtesy Sports Illustrated, July 23, 2001):
The feeling had gone out of everything. It was like we were zombies. You didn't care anymore. July was terrible. The [North Vietnamese] whacked Ripcord, that hill we were on, with mortars and rocket fire. Day after day, night after night. I was getting shell-shocked. I didn't care if I got out. At night you could hear the [enemy] yelling from the jungles all around, "GI die tonight! GI die tonight!" This was our deathbed. We thought we were going to be overrun.
On July 21, 1970, James Robert Kalsu became the first active professional athlete to die in combat in Vietnam. Two days later, Jan gave birth to a boy named Robert Todd Kalsu. Sadly, Bob did not live to find out he indeed had a son. In less than 24 hours after giving birth, Jan learned of Bob being killed. She immediately left the hospital, but not before renaming her son. Jan recalled the silent prayer she conveyed to God prior to Bob leaving for Vietnam. ”If you need him more than I do, please give me a son to carry on his name.” Thus Bob and Jan’s only son became James Robert Kalsu, Jr.
In December 2004, my wife and I took a trip to Washington, D.C. One of the many stops on our three-day excursion was a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Still moved by Kalsu’s heroics, I decided to locate his identification on “The Wall” and trace his etched name.
I still have the etching tucked away in the aforementioned Sports Illustrated issue which featured Bob on the cover.
Upon returning from my trip to Washington, I felt the urge to contact someone in the Kalsu family. Since sports and American history are two passions of mine, I had to let them know how much Bob’s story moved me.
I was able to locate Bob’s daughter, Jill Kalsu Horning.
She was gracious enough to send a reply.
It was such a wonderful surprise to receive your letter. You made my day! Usually it is my mom or my brother who are contacted about my daddy. My feelings always get hurt. I always feel left out so I feel very touched. I read your letter to my mom and my brother. They thought it was very beautiful.
I can't tell you how amazed we are by how many people are touched by the life of my dad. He truly impacted so many people by how he lived his life. Now after he has gone to be with our Lord, so many more are touched by his life. A day doesn't go by when I don't think about my dad and how much I miss him.
Now that I have my own children, I miss the fact that my children don't have a grandpa. I don't ask "why?" anymore because I know that my daddy did what was right and fulfilled his duty to his country. While doing this, he had such an impact on many soldier's lives. There are no accidents with God.
I am so into American history and sports too. I always say that if I had not become a teacher, I would have loved to have been a political science major. I am so glad that you and your wife were able to go to the Vietnam Wall. The experience there can not be put into words. I have only been to D.C. one time, and it was only for about 5 hours. My experience at The Wall is hard to put into words. I hope to one day go with my husband and children to spend more time there and also to see the many other sights there.
I pray that God will bless you and your family always. Thank you so much for taking the time to write me.
With warmest regards,
Nearly four decades after Bob’s death, his two children are doing beautifully. Jill and her husband live in Colorado, raising their five children. And Bob, Jr. is an attorney in Oklahoma where he resides with his wife and four kids.
On this Memorial Day, we pay tribute to those who have lost their lives defending this nation’s freedoms. But there are also family members (like the Kalsus) who have paid a significant price also. They too should be honored on this special day.