Making a bad year better

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 particularly bad year for me. In February of that year I almost died in Dallas, Texas. 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 my chin open. I was taken to Parkland Hospital where President Kennedy had been taken when he was assassinated in 1963

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 hardened against the war and military personnel were often treated with disrespect and disdain.

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. In 1990 when I saw his name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., it was a sad moment in my life.

It was almost three decades later that I discovered how he died. In August 1997, I heard retired Marine Colonel Wes Fox (and Medal of Honor recipient) 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.

That night, around 2 a.m., I awoke with a determination to see that Herron was properly honored, remembered and respected. It was like a personal mission from God.

Since then I have helped endow a scholarship in Lee Roy’s name at Texas Tech’s Vietnam Center, 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 a fitting time to recall a particularly bad year in my life, but to observe that perhaps I have been able to make 1969 a better year after all, especially for Lee Roy’s family—and me.

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