Staff Sgt. Felix M. Conde-Falcon, who died in combat in Vietnam and is buried in a cemetery in Rogers, is one of 24 U.S. military veterans who will receive the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama during a ceremony Tuesday at the White House.
Conde-Falcon’s son, Richard Conde, will receive the medal on his father’s behalf. He grew up not knowing much about his father except what relatives told him, but over the last nine years, has been contacted by several men who served with his father.
One of those men, Les Hayes of Kentucky, has become a good friend of Conde’s, and also will make the trip to Washington to honor Conde-Falcon.
The Army released information about the actions that led to Conde-Falcon’s receiving the Medal of Honor, an upgrade from the Distinguished Service Cross he originally received.
“Conde-Falcon distinguished himself on April 4, 1969, while serving as a platoon leader during a sweep operation in the vicinity of Ap Tan Hoa, Vietnam,” said a biography on the Army’s Valor 24 website. “Conde-Falcon was killed in action that day after destroying multiple enemy bunkers and demonstrating extraordinary leadership under fire. He left behind a wife and two children.”
Those children, Richard Conde and his sister, Jeannie, will be in Washington to honor their father, along with Richard’s wife, Terri, and his daughter, Payten, a student at Cater Elementary School.
“I told the principal (David Dixon) that Payten was going to miss a week of school,” Conde said. “He said, ‘You know the school’s policy.’ I told him why she was going to miss school, and he said, ‘We’ll work it out.’”
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the Conde family, having the chance to recognize a man whose life was cut short by heroic actions that likely saved the soldiers serving with him.
Hayes, who served under Conde-Falcon in Vietnam, tracked Conde down after more than 20 years of searching.
“As an adult nine years ago, I felt like I was really getting to know my father for the first time,” Conde said.
“He and the guys were always playing jokes on each other. They said Dad was afraid of snakes, and they killed one while he was taking a nap and put it on his chest.
“It took them weeks to live that down. Dad made them do a lot of extra chores because of that.”
Hayes and others who served with Conde-Falcon told Conde his father was “a leader who always stayed by their side.”
“I learned a lot about my father from Les. He basically gave me my dad back.”
Conde struggled throughout childhood and even into early adulthood with the loss of his father.
“I remember lying awake at night struggling with God,” he said. “I asked him, ‘Why me?’
“My mom did an outstanding job raising me and my sister, but I missed having a dad. She was 35 when Dad died and she never remarried.”
Many coaches in Conde’s life served as his adult male role models, he said.
“They steered me in the right direction, and probably never even knew they were father figures to me,” Conde said.
Hayes, whom Conde met in his late 30s, has also played a strong role in his life, Conde said.
“Les is my hero,” he said. “He’s given me my dad and more.”
One story Conde said exemplifies the special relationships between Hayes and his family was told by Hayes’ wife, Diane.
“She told me, ‘Les bought a boat. His nickname for me was D.D. and I was sure he was going to name it for me. He held a christening party, and when he unveiled the name it said Conde. I asked him, Are you kidding me?’” Conde said, relating Diane’s story.
When they first met, Hayes gave Conde his father’s gun holster.
“He told me, ‘Your dad was a hero. He took it upon himself to protect his men. He took out four or five bunkers on his own and was shot in the abdomen by an unknown assailant.’”
Hayes told Conde his father was praying to God before he died, “God, watch over my wife,” and told his men, “Please tell my wife and children I love them.”
Conde experienced a tidal wave of emotions on learning how his father died, he said.
“There was sadness, but happiness and joy in finally learning all wrapped up into one.”