Over a lifetime we learn that certain years are worse than others. Sometimes we wish that we could relive the bad years and make different choices. Other times we become motivated to make up for previous failures or to right a wrong.
1969 was a distinctly bad year for me. That February I almost died in Dallas. While doing some roofing work on a three-story apartment building on a cold and misty day, I slipped and fell to the ground below, breaking three ribs and splitting open my chin. I was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital where President John F. Kennedy had been taken when he was assassinated in 1963. The doctor sewed up my chin, announced there was nothing he could do for my broken ribs, and sent me on my way. I was aimlessly wandering the hospital halls when my wife found me and took me home.
While still recovering from my injuries, I learned that my close friend Lee Roy Herron had been killed in Vietnam on February 22, 1969. But I knew little of the circumstances. I thought, What a waste of a remarkable young man’s life. To top it off, when our troops were returning from Vietnam in 1969, much of America had become so hardened against the war that military personnel were often treated with disrespect and disdain. To this day I consider that dishonoring of our troops to be a disgrace and black mark on our country.
For years after 1969 I was haunted by Herron’s death. I struggled with the question of why a just God would allow such a promising young man to die in a futile war. When I first saw his name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., it was a sad moment filled with regret.
It was almost three decades later that I discovered exactly how he died. In August 1997, I heard a retired Medal of Honor recipient, Marine Corps Col. Wesley L. Fox speak. He mentioned that in a key Vietnam battle, a “stout young man from West Texas named Lee Herron” had helped save the day by destroying an enemy machine gun bunker, receiving the Navy Cross posthumously. I was stunned but elated that my friend’s death had not been in vain. He had saved the lives of numerous other Marines.
That night, around 2 a.m., I awoke with a determination to see that Herron was properly honored, remembered, and respected. It was as if I had received a personal mission from God.
Since then I have helped endow a scholarship in Lee Roy’s name at Texas Tech University’s Vietnam Center and Archive, co-authored a book about him with former Marine Randolph Schiffer, and published numerous articles that commemorate his heroism and legacy.
In February 2019, it was 50 years since Herron’s death and my close call with that ultimate fate. Perhaps now is not only a fitting time to recall a particularly bad year in my life, but also to observe that perhaps I have been able to make 1969 a better year after all, especially for Lee Roy’s family—and me. Hopefully, others also will be able to better reconcile the D-Day success with the Vietnam War and more recent war casualties and failures—and to make some bad years better.
David Nelson is a Texas attorney and former Marine Corps captain. He was serving in Okinawa as a judge advocate when the Vietnam War ended in January 1973.