TEMPLE — To say it’s been a long road from Temple to Washington, D.C., for Richard Conde would be an incredible understatement — the journey has taken 45 years.
The 48-year-old Temple man, whose father died in combat during the Vietnam War in 1969, will receive the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on Tuesday on his father’s behalf.
Staff Sgt. Felix M. Conde-Falcon, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 505th Infantry Regiment 3rd Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, had taken out multiple enemy bunkers, and just finished eliminating the final one when he was fatally shot, according to U.S. Army records.
It was a devastating day for the men serving under Conde-Falcon’s leadership, many of whom contacted Conde and told him how much they loved and respected his father.
Nine years ago, Les Hayes of Kentucky managed to track down Conde after a 20-plus year search.
“My dad entered the Army in Chicago, so he started looking up there,” Conde said, describing Hayes. “He told me, ‘You wouldn’t believe how many Condes there are — especially in the North.’
“The coolest thing about this is guys who knew my dad and served with him are talking about what he meant for them and did for them. I feel like I’ve gotten to know my dad.”
Conde-Falcon is buried in the Rogers Cemetery, where he and his wife lived before Conde-Falcon died.
“My mom and dad met here locally,” Conde said. “They ran off together, I guess you’d say. My sister, Jeannie, and I were born at Fort Bliss in El Paso.”
Conde-Falcon was later stationed at Fort Hood.
“They bought a home here in Central Texas, settled in and he went off to war.”
After Conde-Falcon died, the family moved to Troy, where Conde graduated from high school in 1984 and Jeannie graduated in 1985 after helping lead the Troy girls basketball team to a state championship.
“She’s 11 months younger than me — we were best buddies,” Conde said of his sister.
Conde-Falcon missed all of those highlights, and Conde missed the father he had barely known.
“There were a lot of nights I’d lie in bed and I’d argue with God,” he said. “I felt like I was the only one at the school without a father, other than my sister.
“Whenever they had a parent night, people would always ask, ‘Where’s your father?’ and all I could say was, ‘He’s dead.’”
That absence left a gnawing hole in Conde’s psyche that lasted well into adulthood, he said.
What helped bring him closure and peace was getting to know some of the men who served with his father.
“They told me he was like a father to them, and was always looking out for them and trying to protect them,” Conde said.
“He was some much older than they were. He was 31 and they were 18 or 19. He also had a great sense of humor and was always joking with them.”
Conde had heard plenty of good things about his father from his mother and his uncles, he said, “But what were they supposed to say?”
It was when he heard from soldiers in his father’s unit that Conde felt he finally really got to know his father, Conde said.
“I remember I got a letter on New Year’s Eve 2004 from a Leslie Hayes, and I didn’t know who that was. I wondered if it was a woman. I thought, ‘Uh oh, is this an old girlfriend?’ and wondered if I should open it and show it to my wife.”
Conde opened the letter, and learned that Leslie — or Les — Hayes served with his father in Vietnam.
“The letter said, ‘I knew Felix M. Conde. If you’re his son, call me,’” Conde recalled.
The letter, and Conde’s call, would change his life, he said.
Conde called and initially spoke to Hayes’ wife, Diane, who was almost speechless when she first spoke with Conde.
“We’ve been looking for you for more than 20 years,” Diane Hayes told Conde. “My husband will be ecstatic when I tell him you called.”
Conde has become good friends with the Hayes family, and even partly named his daughter after Les: Payten Grace Leslie Conde.
Les Hayes told Conde he was his father’s radio operator.
“The first thing he said to me was, “I was there the day your dad died — do you want to know how he died?’” Conde said.
Conde heard the story of his father’s heroism and sacrifice, and how because of his action, many of the men serving with him were able to return home to their families.
“The soldiers weren’t treated well when they came back,” Conde said. “They were spat on, cussed at and called names. Many of them shut down.
“Les slept in a tent outside for quite a while. It took him quite a while to get over Vietnam.
“He said Dad was their hero, and they didn’t know what to do when he was gone, but they managed to keep going.”