Vietnam vet shares 'one of greatest regrets'
June 13, 2013
By NICK DUKE
FORT BENNING, Ga., (June 12, 2013) -- The most recent graduates of the Army Reconnaissance Course got a special treat May 29, as retired Col. Joseph Eszes, a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, was the special guest speaker at the ARC graduation ceremony.
Eszes served as a Cavalryman during the Vietnam War and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on Dec. 9, 1971.
According to the official award citation, two U.S. helicopters were conducting low-level reconnaissance when both were shot down by enemy fire.
Eszes, then a first lieutenant in C Troop, 16th Air Cavalry Regiment, 1st Aviation Brigade, was monitoring the situation from an outpost and started for the battle site in an effort to rescue the downed crewmen.
"You don't leave your guys on the ground," Eszes said. "I tried to get them. I made probably half a dozen approaches, and got the airplane shot. ... Every time you'd go in, you'd try different directions and different speeds and different elevations and angles, and they'd shoot you."
One crew was reached by a command and control helicopter, but the other was blanketed by intense enemy fire.
Eszes tried three times to reach the downed ship, but was turned away each time, with his ship eventually sustaining bullet damage that caused it to leak fuel.
He returned to the outpost, and obtained another helicopter before returning to the battle site.
His fourth attempt at rescue was thwarted when his windshield was shattered by enemy fire.
On his fifth attempt, he reached the downed aircraft, but was forced to depart due to enemy fire.
As Eszes' helicopter lifted off, an explosion engulfed the downed ship, ending any hopes that the crew might have survived.
"The fact of the matter is I didn't get those guys out, and that's probably one of my greatest regrets in this world, " Eszes said. "The loss is the kid who was flying the aircraft, I had personally trained to fly that aircraft. The kid that was in the back begged me to fly those airplanes. He came to me day after day after day, and I finally let him fly them, so there's some accountability there."
Eszes now speaks occasionally to various groups, and said he was glad to offer his experiences to the ARC graduates.
"I was a Cavalryman at all levels that one can be a Cavalryman," he said. "If I can share anything with these folks that is useful in terms of learning experience or metaphorical knowledge, then that's great."
As a Distinguished Service Cross recipient, Eszes is a member of the Legion of Valor, which played a crucial role in Eszes' ARC graduation address.
When the Legion of Valor visited Fort Benning last month, Eszes met Lt. Col. Andre Mackey, the commander of 3rd Squadron, 16th Cavalry.
After a few more conversations, Mackey invited Eszes to speak at the ARC graduation.
"With his career experience, you could really line that up with the experience the Army has had over the last 10 to 15 years and then look ahead to see what we can learn from him," Mackey said. "On top of those parallels, he was a reconnaissance leader in combat, and I think that makes him have so much to add for a graduating class like this. With operations in Iraq and Afghanistan being minimized through the end of next year, a lot of these guys, unlike classes before them, are not going to see combat. The few who do are probably going to see it in a resource-strained environment."
Eszes said he was excited about speaking at the ceremony largely because of his concerns for modern Soldiers.
"One of my interests is how do you survive in this Army with budget constraints, reductions in force, nonselection for promotion, and so forth," Eszes said. "How do you do that? I reflect back on when I was a first lieutenant. What did I do to survive? ... The reality was if you were not competitive, if you didn't go the extra step or the extra mile, you were in trouble.
"It was abundantly clear if you didn't do that, you could be like your contemporaries who were getting reduction in force letters. They were just there one day and gone the next."
Eszes said he learned early on that to be successful in the Army, he had to have a sense of urgency.
"I learned that you have to fight for stuff," he said. "You have to understand that if you think the problem through and start with where you think it is you want to go and you walk that dog backward, you don't have a lot of time. What you think is 20 years compresses into some key events that make you competitive in what you chose to do."
During the graduation, Eszes shared stories of fallen comrades who died in part because of failed reconnaissance.
"What you are doing in the world of reconnaissance is, in my mind, the most important thing that's happening in our Army today," he said to the ARC graduates.
He also said reconnaissance officers must be willing to face and overcome their fears.
"All of these guys that you see wandering around the area who have been acknowledged for their contributions in terms of heroism or bravery, that wasn't fearlessness," Eszes said. "That was the capacity to do what was right when you were terrified and overcoming that fear."