On behalf of a grateful nation, First Army Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Antonio Aguto Jr., presents a folded United States flag to Marie Nelsen, widow of Pfc. David Wayne Derry.
On behalf of a grateful nation, First Army Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Antonio Aguto Jr., presents a folded United States flag to Marie Nelsen, widow of Pfc. David Wayne Derry. (Photo Credit: W. Wayne Marlow) VIEW ORIGINAL

Marie Derry was 18 and pregnant in March 1968 when two Army officers arrived at her door in Memphis. A chaplain informed her that her husband, Pfc. David Wayne Derry, was Missing in Action in Vietnam.

“That visit is a total blur,” she said. “I didn’t know what that meant exactly.”

Later that afternoon, it became clear. Shortly after the officers left, a Western Union telegram arrived at the door on Sunny Brook Street. It informed the shocked young wife that Wayne’s body had been recovered and would be arriving back in the states via airplane within the week.

Marie remembers vividly that Soldiers – even those who came home in flag-draped caskets – were often not well-received in the U.S. in those days. She couldn’t bear the thought of her husband’s hearse being booed or spit on as it made its way from the Memphis airport to their little hometown just across the border in Arkansas for burial.

“My brother was the police chief in a nearby town,” she remembers. “So he drove to the airport in his squad car, lights flashing, and accompanied the hearse the whole way. I remember him telling me, ‘Marie, I’ve got a loaded shot gun in the passenger seat. If anyone disrespects Wayne today, they will regret it.”

After her husband’s burial, young Marie moved to Illinois to be near family living in East Moline. With the help of her mother and an older brother, she raised Trina, the daughter her husband never met. The house always had a framed photo of Wayne in his Army uniform and Trina always learned stories of her dad, who had been her mother’s sweetheart since childhood.

Wayne’s service allotment checks found the family even after they moved to Illinois, but, for some reason, the family never received his medals: the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Combat Infantryman’s Badge. They also never got the flag that was draped over his coffin, something that has long haunted Marie.

Years ago, she began working with her Illinois U.S. Representative to seek these, but the case fell through the cracks when the lawmaker became ill and died. Several years ago, she renewed her push for the medals with the office of Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.).

The medals were approved and a veteran contacted First Army to ask assistance in a proper military presentation. First Army Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Antonio Aguto Jr., said he’d be honored to do it.

“I was just grateful to get them finally, but veteran friends and family said it had been done all wrong,” Marie said.

The presentations were made on Sept. 13 at American Legion Post 569 in Milan, Ill.

“None of this is for me,” Marie says. “It’s for my daughter who never even got to meet her father.”

Trina, an Illinois nurse, attended the ceremony with two daughters and a granddaughter.

“I know Wayne would be happy to know these medals will eventually go to his daughter, his granddaughters and his great-granddaughter,” Marie said. “But first I’m going to treasure them for a while. They’ve been a long time in coming.”

Wayne was serving with 25th Infantry Division when he was killed by enemy anti-tank mine while conducting a reconnaissance patrol to clear a supply route.

“He was young, he was 19 when he got killed,” Marie said. “He left right after Christmas for Vietnam and he died on March 22, so he wasn’t there a long time. I was his first love and he was my first love. We were both young, very young. I was 16 when we got married. His mother died when he was 8 years old and he was raised by his sister. And his sister did not want him to go to Vietnam. She said, “Don’t do it, Wayne. Just please don’t go. Go to Canada.’ And he said, “No, I’m not going to run. Absolutely not. I’m not going to hide for the rest of my life.’”

Since her move to Illinois came four months later, it’s possible the medals were sent to her old address, but in any event, it was decades before Marie received them.

“I never thought about a ceremony. I was just so pleased to get the medals after more than 50 years,” she said. “That just meant the world to me to get those medals. The ceremony is paying tribute to her father and it’s just wonderful.”

Marie also addressed how far the pendulum has swung in the last half-century with regard to treatment of that era’s veterans.

“When a person came home from Vietnam, they weren’t welcome,” she recalled. “They were spit at, protested, called bad names. But now Vietnam veterans are getting the recognition they deserve. It’s entirely different now. Vietnam veterans are treated with respect, which they should have been then. Those boys didn’t asked to be sent over there. They did what they were told to do. They didn’t deserve the treatment they got when they came home.”

During his remarks, Aguto described Wayne as “a young Soldier, just 19 – optimistic, striking, confident – and there’s no way not to grieve the loss of such a young life. But this is a love story of a young wife who never gave up, the love story of a devoted daughter who never forgot, and a love story of veterans who for decades have dedicated themselves to remembering and honoring their brothers and sisters in arms. Our nation is only great because of people like Wayne and the Derry family."