Richard Eli was born on January 19, 1945 in Pueblo, Colorado. He was the son of Gibson Eli of Wellpinit, Washington and Tibe Johnson Gutierrez of Pueblo. Richard’s parents met when Gib was on leave from the US Army in Colorado.
Richard spent the early part of his childhood with his mother, first in Colorado and later in Salt Lake City, Utah. As young children trying to escape the summer heat, he and his friends once took a swim in the baptismal font of the world famous Mormon Tabernacle. On several other occasions, his friends distracted the security guards on Temple Square while Richard collected coins from the bottom of a “wishing” fountain. He and his friends ran away from the guards and later used the money for a day at the movies. As an adult, he loved to tell that story, always with a half-grin and a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. He once joked that swimming in that pool was the closest he got to becoming a Mormon.
If the temple was the scene of at least some of his childhood misadventures, it also witnessed a major change in his young life. His sister Gloria remembered that their mother brought Richard to Temple Square and gave him to his father. At only eight or nine years of age, he was separated from his mother and siblings in Salt Lake City, and brought to Spokane with Gib and Rose Eli. Gloria did not see her brother for several years.
In Spokane, Richard attended school in several places, including Saint Patrick, Gonzaga Prep, and Rogers High School.
As a teen, he sometimes returned to visit family in Salt Lake City. Gloria recalled that during one of his visits, he got a job hauling manure. He walked a mile to work, shoveled manure all day and then walked home. At some point, they asked him to deliver flowers instead – an obvious promotion over his previous job.
His sister also remembered that he loved to read war books. He always said to her, “Someday I’m going to join the service.”
All too soon, his words came true.
On June 11, 1968 Richard enlisted in the United States Army. He completed thirteen weeks of basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington. From there he completed airborne advanced infantry training at Fort Gordon, Georgia and then jump school at Fort Benning. Upon completion of his training, he returned home for thirty days leave, and on Christmas Day 1968, he received shipping orders to Vietnam. He departed San Francisco International Airport and arrived at Bein Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam on December 27. Richard served in the Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Airborne Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, also known as the “Screaming Eagles.”
The conflict in Vietnam began more than a decade before Richard enlisted, but the presence of US combat units increased dramatically by the mid-1960s. Richard arrived in Vietnam at the height of US escalation.
One friend recently recalled that despite the risk to himself, Richard walked point for his unit every day that he was in the field. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, “walking point” refers to taking the first position in a combat military formation. In other words, the “point man” is the lead soldier who is most exposed to danger as a unit advances through hostile territory.
The threat of danger became a gruesome reality on a mountain near the Laotian border of South Vietnam. Dong Ap Bia was known to local tribesmen as the “Mountain of the Crouching Beast,” but to American soldiers, it was known as Hamburger Hill. In May of 1969, Richard’s unit was ordered to take the hill despite significant tactical disadvantages. The North Vietnamese were well entrenched in the hillside, heavily fortified, and hidden by double and triple-canopy jungle. The US suffered heavy casualties, but ultimately succeeded in taking the hill. Unfortunately, the US surrendered the hill shortly thereafter.
Richard received the Bronze Star with Combat “V” for heroism in combat. His letter of award stated:
For heroism in ground combat against a hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam on 12 May 1969. Private Eli distinguished himself while serving as a fire team leader in Company B, 3d Battalion, 187th Infantry, in the A Shau Valley, Republic of Vietnam. As the allied forces advanced up Dong Ap Bia Mountain, they were met with heavy resistance from the 29th North Vietnamese Army Regiment employing rocket propelled grenades, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from well-entrenched bunkers. Subjecting himself to this intense fire, Private Eli moved among his men, positioning them and encouraging them to drive on and defeat the insurgents. Due to his expert maneuvering, he and his fire team were able to destroy an enemy bunker and to continue the assault up the mountain. On several occasions, while walking in the lead position, his quick reaction to enemy sniper fire saved many lives. Through his courage and aggressive leadership, he contributed immeasurably to the success of the mission. Private Eli's personal bravery and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
Authority: By direction of the President of the United States under the provisions of Executive Order 11046.
Richard displayed tremendous courage in the face of terror, but no medal for bravery would ever erase the trauma of Hamburger Hill. To the end of his life, the sights, sounds, and smells of death haunted his memories and altered the landscape of his soul.
Beyond his own suffering, he was deeply wounded by the memory of those who died in battle. By his account of those horrific events, some of the fallen soldiers were nameless, dying men shrieking for help in the dark jungle night – unable to be saved. Other stories had names, like that of Myles D. Westman, who was described by others as a “big, blond Swedish kid from Minnesota … innocent [and] beloved by everyone in Bravo Company” (Zaffiri, 2009). Westman was killed when a piece of shrapnel hit his head and was mourned by all who knew him. To the end of his life, Richard honored the memory of his friend. Some years ago, some of his children visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, and he asked them to find Westman’s name on the wall. He made the same request of others, myself included.
The war revealed Richard’s courage, but it also showed his humility. At one point, he refused the Purple Heart because he said that all he got was a little shrapnel and others deserved it more than he.
Richard left Vietnam and arrived back in the United States in January of 1970. He once said that after he landed at San Francisco International Airport, he walked through the terminal still wearing his military uniform. Some opponents of the war saw him and spat on him. Perhaps they did not believe it was enough to suffer the depravities of war without also bearing the burden of their ignorance. If they only knew the man we knew, they would have never disrespected him in that way.
As stated in his obituary, Richard is survived by his wife of 41 years, Iva Andrew Eli and his children, Marie Eli, Lee Eli, DeDe Eli, Sam Eli, Samantha Dillon, and Leyton Tibe Eli. He has thirteen grandchildren and fifteen and ¾ great grandchildren.
Throughout his life, Richard fought the demons of war and struggled with ever-increasing health problems, but he never stopped caring for others. For example, he was active in veteran’s events, and will always be remembered wearing his father’s regalia during the powwows and standing in honor of other veterans. During cultural and spiritual gatherings, he often stood and prayed for his family, friends, and community. Even during his many hospitalizations, he did his best to help and uplift those around him.
It is never an easy task to condense the life history of a man to less than four pages of text. Most of his life stories will remain untold today, but will be remembered in our hearts and re-told among his many family and friends. Richard will always be remembered for his courage, humility, and quiet strength, and in this way, he will live forever.
Delivered September 9, 2013 in Wellpinit, WA.