Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering a former Buffalo Bill who gave his life for his country

I first became familiar with the story of the late Bob Kalsu while I was covering the Buffalo Bills in the mid-1980s. I learned how he was a promising offensive lineman whose life was tragically cut short when he was killed serving his country in Viet Nam.

When the Bills headed to their first Super Bowl in 1991, I decided to track down Bob's widow and his children to write a story about this forgotten hero. The Persian Gulf War had just started, so this was a very emotional time for Jan, Bob's widow, because the images of the young men in the camouflage uniforms and the young men in the Bills uniforms evoked powerful memories.

I recall fighting back tears as I interviewed Jan over the phone from her home in Oklahoma City. And I remember crying as I wrote the story.

A few years later, I was in Washington, D.C. working on another story and I stopped by the Viet Nam Memorial and made a sketching of Kalsu's name, one of more than 58,000 engraved on the monument's  reflecting wall.

In the fall of 2000, I caught up with Jan and her children again when Kalsu was inducted onto the Ralph Wilson Stadium Wall of Fame. It's pretty evident that few of the thousands of stories I've written ever touched me the way this one did.

Below is a story I wrote about Bob Kalsu and his family for my 2007 book, The Good, The Bad & the Ugly: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping and Gut-Wrenching Moments in Buffalo Bills History. 

I believe it's worth re-reading on a day when we honor the brave souls who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for us. 

How I long for the day we will be together again. So many times I have wanted for you to put your arm around me, wipe a tear from my eye, or just laugh and tease with me. I think if we could be together we would be really close. I'm proud of you and the values you stood for. I love you.
- A note left by Jill Kalsu Horning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Not a day goes by when they don't think about him. Not a day goes by when they don't wonder how much different their lives might have been had a husband and a daddy not been taken from them in the prime of his life.

For more than three decades, the wife, daughter and son of James Robert Kalsu have attempted to fill the huge void created by the Vietnam War. For 30 years, they've been on a journey of discovery that has been profoundly gratifying and sad. For more than three decades, they have coped by remembering rather than forgetting.

"It's strange, but I feel as if I'm still getting to know my dad all these years later,'' said Jill Kalsu Horning, who was 18 months old when her father was killed on July 21, 1970 while coming to the aid of his troops at Firebase Ripcord on an isolated jungle hilltop in South Vietnam. "I keep learning more and more about him through the memories of people who knew him."

She paused to take a deep breath. She was doing her best not to cry on the other end of the phone line from her home in Oklahoma City.

"It makes me feel good to learn that he was a kind-hearted, highly principled man - a true hero,'' she continued. "But it also makes me feel sad, somewhat cheated, that I didn't get to experience him for myself."

Some of those who did get to experience him were at Ralph Wilson Stadium on November 12, 2000 when Kalsu was added to the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame. Recognition of the only active NFL player killed in Vietnam evoked powerful emotions among his widow, Jan, and their children, Jill and Bob Jr., who observed the unveiling from the field during ceremonies before the Bills played the Chicago Bears.

"We can't thank the Bills enough for all they've done through the years to keep Bob's memory alive,'' said Kalsu's widoe, Jan McLauchlin. "They didn't have to do any of this because he only played one season with them before going to Vietnam. To honor him this way warms our hearts, and means so much not only to us, but to all families who have lost loved ones to war."


They met on a blind date back in the autumn of 1966 when Bob was an All-American offensive guard at the University of Oklahoma and Jan was a sophomore at nearby Central Oklahoma. They were both Catholic and deeply religious. They hit it off immediately.

"You hear all those horror stories about blind dates, but we clicked from the moment we laid eyes on each other,'' Jan recalled. "Bob had this big, ol' infectious smile and laugh that won you over. I remember going home after that first date and telling my sister, 'I think I met the man I'm going to marry.' That's how smitten I was."

Bob was smitten, too, and a year later, after he played the last game of his college football career with the Sooners in the Orange Bowl, the two were married. When the Kalsus returned from their honeymoon, family members serenaded them at the Oklahoma City airport with strains of "Buffalo girls won't you come out tonight."

"We didn't know at first why they were singing that song, but when they told us that Bob had been drafted by Buffalo, it all made sense,'' Jan said.

Other teams had been interested in Kalsu, too, but they shied away from him because they knew he had been an ROTC student at Oklahoma, and with the war raging in Southeast Asia, there was always the chance he might be called upon to fulfill his military obligations.

"That specter was always hanging over our heads, but we tried not to think about it,'' Jan said. "We were young and in love and everything seemed so wonderful in our lives."

That November, their lives became even more wonderful when Jill was born. Bob was overcome with joy. 

He spent every spare moment with his wife and daughter.

Professionally, things were going well, too. Though the Bills won only one of 14 games during the 1968 season, Kalsu broke into the starting lineup and was named the team's rookie of the year.

"Our life could not have been better,'' Jan said "Then, we got the call."


The Army wanted Bob to trade in his blue Bills jersey for some green and brown combat fatigues. He was sent to Fort Still in Lawton, Okla. for training. That September, while his Bills teammates prepared to open their season, Kalsu received orders that he was being shipped out to Vietnam as a second lieutenant in the 101st Screaming Eagles Airborne Division.

"We couldn't stop crying when we got the news,'' Jan said. "Bob was the ultimate family man. He couldn't bear the thought of being away from me and Jill."

The next day, Jan visited her church and prayed.

"I made a request of God,'' she recalled. "I said, 'If you must take Bob, then please give me a son.' After  
Bob left for Vietnam, I found out I was pregnant. Bob was so thrilled with the news. We both wanted to have a large family, and we were well on our way."

Bob wrote often. The letters were filled with love. He never mentioned the danger he and his troops were in. He didn't want to frighten her. But Jan couldn't help but be scared. She counted the days until they would meet again.

The reunion came in May 1970 when the Army flew him to Hawaii for a week of R&R. Jan, seven months pregnant at the time, met him in Honolulu. She brought along Jill.

"When he ran off the bus from the airport, he was like a little kid,'' Jan said. "He couldn't wait to hug Jill. But the sight of this big guy barreling toward her, frightened her. She clutched my legs and started to cry. Bob cried, too, because he thought Jill had forgotten him. But she hadn't. I got her composed, and in no time she went back to being Daddy's little girl."

Jan couldn't help but notice how fatigued her husband was. He slept often that week. During one of his naps, the hotel set off some fireworks, and Bob, mistakening the noise for gun fire, tore out of bed and sought cover.

"That was my first indication of how horrible the war must have been for him and his men,'' she said. "It shocked me."

The week passed much too fast. The departure was devastating.

"He was running aside this tram that was taking Jill and me to the airport, and he was holding my hand,'' she recalled. "We both were crying. I said, 'Bob, please be careful,' and he said, 'No, Jan, you be careful; you're having our baby.' Then, our grip broke. It was the last conversation we ever had; the last time we touched."

Roughly two months later, Bob was killed when mortar fire rained down on Ripcord. Less than 48 hours later, Jan gave birth to a baby boy. She couldn't wait to send Bob a letter telling him the news. But before she could take pen to paper, a teary-eyed soldier arrived at the hospital to inform her that her husband had been killed.

The next day, Jan changed her baby's name on the birth certificate to match her husband's: James Robert Kalsu.

How I've missed the father and son things we could have done, the knowledge and love you could have given me. I can't wait for the time we are reunited to share our love and talk to each other. You are truly a person I can look up to.
I love you.
Note left by Bob Kalsu, Jr. at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The years immediately following Bob's death were extremely difficult for Jan. At age 22, she was a widow with two children. Her deep religious faith and her family and in-laws helped sustain her.

From Day One, Jan was determined to make sure her children knew what a wonderful man their father was.

"She wanted us to know as much as we could about Dad,'' Jill said. "She would tell us stories about him, and encourage others to talk to us about him. It was really hard when we were younger because we yearned for him so badly even though we had no memories of him. But as time passed, I'm so glad Mom did that."

The void may have been toughest for Bob Jr. to fill. When he was a teenager, he wrote a gut-wrenching poem about missing his father, titled Why God?

It read, in part:

Why my father, God?
What did he ever do?
You didn't even give him time
To tell his own son "I love you."
The love he showed for others
Could have been for me, too
Why him God?
Was he just for you?

Several years after Bob Jr. wrote that cathartic piece, Jan found a cassette tape her husband sent home from Vietnam just before he was killed. She played it for her children. The recording finished with these words to his unborn son: " And now for you, Baby K, Daddy loves you and pretty soon I'll be home to hold you."

Both Jill and Bob Jr. are now parents themselves. Jill is a teacher on a leave of absence, while her brother is an attorney. Both live in the Oklahoma City area, not far from their mom, and stepdad, Bob McLauchlin, whom Jan married in 1985.

Jill and Bob Jr. intend to pass along the stories they've heard about their father to their children. They will make family trips to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where there is a display dedicated to Kalsu, and to Ralph Wilson Stadium, where his name will be prominently displayed for as long as professional football is played there. They will teach their children that their grandfather was a kind-hearted man, a man of his word, a true hero who made the ultimate sacrifice.

"During those rare breaks from chasing his grandchildren around, I'll sit and think about how nice it would be to have him here, just to chew the fat with him,'' Jill said. "The nice thing is that even though my brother and I have no memories of him, we feel as if we know him, thanks to my Mom and others. We feel as if he has been with us in spirit throughout our lives.'' 


My prayer, my dear and sweet husband, is that the world would forever know peace so that never again will death separate and permanently sear the hearts of families torn by the tragedies of war. I await the day when the Lord reunites us in heaven. Honey, I love you forever.
- Note left by Jan Kalsu at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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