TEMPLE — Visiting Washington, D.C., was a “fun trip” for Cater Elementary School student Payten Conde, but it was also a life-changing experience, as she saw her father accept the Medal of Honor on behalf of her grandfather, Sgt. Felix Conde-Falcon.
Conde-Falcon died during a firefight in Vietnam 45 years ago, and was presented the Medal of Honor as part of the Valor 24 event that recognized the heroic achievements of several minority servicemen who served during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Richard Conde, Conde-Falcon’s son, accepted the award on his father’s behalf, and Payten was among the family members who made the trip.
“It was really fun in Washington,” said Payten, who described the White House as “pretty” and President Barack Obama, who gave her a special presidential package of M&Ms, as “tall and lanky.”
Asked if she also had a chance to meet first lady Michelle Obama, Payten said, “No, only Mr. President and the guards.”
After a flight from Killeen to Dallas, and then on to D.C., the Condes spent 10 days in the nation’s capital.
“It was the longest trip I ever took on an airplane,” Payten said. “We visited lots of memorials.”
She said her favorite was the Washington Monument, although the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where her grandfather’s name is inscribed, also holds a special place in her heart.
“Buses took us to the memorial, and we put a sheet of paper on the wall, and my dad took a pencil and shaded his name,” Payten said.
A visit to the Smithsonian also was a highlight, she said.
Payten missed several days of school,
but Principal David Dixon gave his blessing because of the significance of the event.
“This was an important historical day, and the fact that it was to honor a family member made it an incredible trip to take,” he said. “To take part in honoring one of our veterans, not too many people get to do that.”
Leslie Hays, who served with Conde-Falcon in Vietnam and has become friends with Conde, also attended the event. Payten’s full name is Payten Grace Leslie Conde, partly in honor of Hays.
“She used to sign Payten Conde to her schoolwork, but lately I’ve seen her sign her full name,” Conde said. “She understands better why Leslie is part of her name, now.”
Seeing the ceremony through the eyes of a 9-year-old added some perspective, he said.
“There were a lot of things that were memorable, but one of the unique things was watching Payten run around and dance at the White House,” Conde said.
“But after the ceremony, her tears were flowing, and that helped me know that she got it. She understood what it was all about. Everybody was in tears after the ceremony.”
Several former soldiers who served with Conde-Falcon attended the event.
The 82nd Airborne Division, of which Conde-Falcon was a member, also sent several current soldiers to the ceremony.
“It was the experience of a lifetime, something we’ll always remember,” Conde said. “I’m so glad that Payten got to be a part of it.”