Fifty-three years and six months.

Marie Derry Nelsen, the widow of Army Private 1st Class David Wayne Derry, waited 53 years and six months. On Monday morning, under a white tent behind American Legion Post 569 in Milan, it finally happened.

The long-grieving widow was properly presented with her late husband’s Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantry Badge, along with a half-dozen other distinctions and the American flag.

More than a half century after the 19-year-old was killed in combat in Vietnam, he finally was recognized in an official ceremony, presented by Lt. Gen. Antonio A. Aguto Jr., commanding general, First Army.

Sitting in the front row next to Marie during the ceremony was her daughter, Trina Mueller — the only child of Pfc. Derry, whom he never got the chance to meet.

How it happened

Marie Derry married Mick Nelsen in the years following her young husband’s death.

Mick always knew the story of David Wayne Derry, whom everyone called Wayne. A military man himself, Nelsen shared in honoring the fallen soldier. He knew his wife never received the medals from Vietnam that were due her family, and he wanted to make it right.

At a public event in 2019, Mick ran into U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline. He told her his wife’s story and asked about the decorations. More conversations with Bustos’ staff followed, and the medals arrived one day in the mail.

More than a year later, Mick Nelsen stopped into the office of state Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Andalusia. He brought along Derry’s casualty report, asking whether it would be enough for the Illinois Secretary of State to issue his wife Gold Star license plates.

There to answer Nelsen’s questions was Anderson aid Ken Moffett, a veteran who has earned a reputation for serving other veterans. When he learned the family recently received Derry’s medals, Moffett pressed on.

“There had been no ceremony in 1968, and there had been nothing when the medals came,” he said. “I sort of sheepishly asked Marie if she’d like a ceremony, if it could be arranged. She said, ‘Can we have one?’

“I thought maybe we’d get a captain, maybe a major to properly present them. Instead, they sent a three-star general.”

Marie was thrilled.

“I was 18 years old, pregnant, and I lost my husband,” she said. “In those days, our veterans weren’t honored. They were yelled at, and people even spit on them.

“One of my brothers was very protective of me. He was the police chief in a small town in Arkansas, and he went to the airport with the funeral director to pick up Wayne’s body.”

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

With a shotgun resting on the passenger seat of his squad car, Young is said to have warned: “If anyone disrespects Wayne today, they’ll regret it.”

Throughout her life, Marie made sure her late husband was respected, too.

“I’m most inspired by the tenacity of a young woman,” Aguto said. “Marie made sure he lived on. You made this happen … through sheer force of will and undying love.”

The soldier’s daughter

Pfc. Derry was drafted just after his 19th birthday.

Not even three months in country, he became one of more than 58,000 Americans to perish in Vietnam.

“He knew I was pregnant with her,” Marie said of the couple’s daughter, Trina. “He died in March, and she was born in August.”

Marie now has five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Two of the grandchildren and one great-granddaughter also attended Monday’s ceremony.

“They will never know him, except by a picture and what we tell them,” Marie said. “But they got to see their grandfather receive those medals — see that his life mattered.”

Early in his presentation, the general apologized in advance to Marie for “choking up.” For leaders, he said, such events are “gut-punch days.”

He told the audience the family will treasure Derry’s medals as they are passed from one generation to the next. First, though, Marie intends to savor the recognition that has taken so painfully long.

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

“Many died before Wayne and many died after. Many more will die. I think it’s so important we remember and honor them. He might not be here, but he definitely lives on.”

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