A lot of people look back on their lives and think, “If I could only do it over again.” That’s not possible, but sometimes you get the chance to make up a little for your omissions. I’d like to believe I have been able to do that for my friend Lee Roy Herron, who was killed in action in the Vietnam War.
Lee Roy and I were “ol’ buddies” who met in junior high school in Lubbock in 1957. We maintained our friendship throughout high school and Texas Tech University. We graduated in 1967.
The 1960s were turbulent times. Lee Roy and I were vulnerable for the draft. To have control over his military obligation, he decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps officer-training program, and he talked me into it, too. I thought surely the war would be over by the time I had to fulfill my commitment. But by 1967, the war had escalated, not stopped.
The USMC program was different from other officer-training programs. Participants went through either two six-week summer training sessions or one 10-week summer session then got additional training after college graduation and commissioning as a second lieutenant. With a strong aptitude for language, after completing officer training, Lee Roy was sent to learn Vietnamese and become a translator. He could have been stationed in Washington, D.C., but he insisted on going to the front lines in Vietnam.
Me? I had no desire for combat, so I transferred to the Marine law program. I was accepted to law school at Southern Methodist University and graduated in 1970. While waiting on bar exam results, I worked for several months at a Big Eight firm and took the CPA exam. Then I served in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office to fulfill my military commitment. Afterward, I returned to the firm and later became a partner. I left in 1991 and became vice president and grant director of Houston Endowment, retiring in 2005.
While I was safely in law school, Lee Roy went to Vietnam. Just two months after he got there, he was killed by enemy fire near the Laotian border. When I heard of his death, I was filled with regret and sadness. He had been a good friend for many years, but I had been too busy to attend his wedding. And partly because I felt he was disappointed I didn’t go to Vietnam, I gradually lost touch with him after college.
In 1997 I attended a benefit and heard retired U.S. Marine Col. Wesley L. Fox, a Medal of Honor recipient, speak about heroism in Vietnam. Col. Fox talked about “a stout young man from West Texas named Lee Herron.” I was surprised to learn that Lee (who had stopped using “Roy” in his name) had taken over a platoon and personally destroyed a formidable enemy machine gun bunker, then charged a second machine gun bunker, where he was killed. Col. Fox, Lee’s company commander, said he wrote the citation for Lee’s heroism, which earned him a posthumous Navy Cross, an award second only to the Medal of Honor. Lee had died a hero.
With Col. Fox’s remarks nagging at me, I enlisted the help of some high school buddies to create a scholarship in Lee Roy’s name at Texas Tech’s Vietnam Center. At the first scholarship ceremony, the mayor of Lubbock proclaimed March 3, 2001, “Lee Roy Herron Day.” Col. Fox, as well as several other Marines, attended and spoke about Lee Roy’s bravery. His mother, who is now 93, beamed with pride at the honor paid to her son.
I continued my research on Lee Roy and discovered more evidence of his true character. Just days before his death, for instance, he flew in a helicopter 10 miles over enemy lines just to attend a field church service! I didn’t want Lee Roy’s memory to fade, so I outlined the facts, and with the help of former Marine Randy Schiffer, then a Texas Tech medical professor (whose writing skills far surpass mine), we wrote David & Lee Roy: A Vietnam Story (Texas Tech University Press). The book is a powerful memoir of fate, friendship and heroism.
The Lee Roy Herron Scholarship is well endowed; Houston Endowment contributed $100,000 in my honor when I retired in 2005. But I am not yet done honoring my friend. I’d like to continue promoting the construction of a dedicated building for the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech to ensure that Lee Roy and all the other brave Americans who died in that conflict almost 50 years ago will continue to be honored.
—As told to Linda Segall, email@example.com,
a freelance writer from Jacksonville, Fla.
Photo Courtesy of Houston Endowment
More from the JofA: