Illinois Widow Receives Husband’s Purple Heart, Bronze Star 53 Years After Vietnam War

by Matthew Memrick
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An Illinois Vietnam veteran widow’s quest to get Gold Star license plates ended with her getting her late husband’s Purple Heart and Bronze Star ceremony 53 years later.

According to the Quad-City Times, Marie Derry Nelson finally got her husband’s honor this week in an American Legion ceremony 53 years and six months after he died in battle.

Nelson, the widow of Army Private 1st Class David Wayne Derry, was awarded his Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Combat Infantry badges. Derry’s family also got several other distinctions and the American flag.

Lt. Gen. Antonio Aguto Jr., a commanding general of the First Army, presented the medals, including the Purple Heart medal, at a ceremony. The Army private was 19 when he died.

Quest For Purple Heart Honors A Long Time Coming

Former soldier and current husband Mick Nelson knew of her late husband.

He knew of the man people called Wayne, and he also knew the late soldier never got his dues. 

In 2019, he reached out to U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos. After telling the fallen soldier’s story, Bustos’ staff made the right connections, and the veteran’s medals came in the mail one day, including the Purple Heart medal.

But not the ceremony.

Over a year later, Nelson contacted state Sen. Neil Anderson. In addition to bringing Derry’s death report, he wanted to get his wife’s Gold Star license plates from Illinois.

What happened next turning into this week’s veteran ceremony.

Anderson aide Ken Moffett, who works to help other veterans, learned about the family’s medals but did not hear about an official ceremony. He wanted to know why.

Nelson responded that there was no 1968 ceremony and nothing after the medals came in the mail. When he asked his wife if she wanted a ceremony, she said, “Can we have one?”

The family thought they’d get a major or captain to come to the ceremony. Instead, a three-star general came to honor the fallen soldier and his Purple Heart medal.

Purple Heart Ceremony Brings Back Memories

At 18, Marie Derry Nelson remembered being pregnant and now without a husband

“In those days, our veterans weren’t honored,” Marie Nelson said. “They were yelled at, and people even spit on them.”

She told the story of her brother, a police chief in Arkansas, coming to pick up the body with a funeral director at the airport in 1968.

During his presentation, Lt. Gen. Aguto told more of the story of Marie’s brother, William “Buddy” Young, retrieving Derry’s remains.

With mom sat daughter, Trina Mueller. Mueller never met her late father, who left for war before she was born. Trina Mueller was born in August of 1968, just months after her father became one of more than 58,000 Americans to die in Vietnam.

Derry Nelson now has five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Two of the grandchildren and one great-granddaughter came to the special veteran ceremony.

The widow heard the general talk to the audience about the war and the after-effects. Lt. Gen. Aguto apologized to Marie and said events like this one are “gut-punch days.”

But overall, Marie Derry Nelson can savor that veteran’s Purple Heart medal and the recognition that took so painfully long to come.

“I was so thrilled to receive the medals,” she said. “I am so touched by what’s happened.”

Outsider.com