CEDAR RAPIDS — Vietnam veteran Darrell Washburn never wanted the attention that comes with a Purple Heart. Any time his wife, Diana, brought up the idea, he greeted it quickly with, “No, no, no.”
“I always wanted him to have it,” Diana Washburn said.
Diana, Darrell’s wife of 31 years, eventually waited him out. On Sunday, two and a half years after Darrell died and 50 years after he received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Diana and 18 other family members received a Purple Heart and several other military awards on his behalf from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.
“He never wanted this, but he doesn’t have anything to say about it (now),” Diana Washburn said with a laugh. “We’re all very proud of him.”
“He earned and absolutely deserved those medals,” Ernst said during the ceremony at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library.
Darrell Washburn was living in Marion and barely out of high school when he enlisted in the Army in 1967.
He received the Purple Heart after suffering a broken foot in the war. Diana said Darrell’s use of sand to treat the injury probably saved his life.
Diana Washburn described Darrell as “kind of a rough guy” — his grandchildren called him “grumpa” — but said he cared deeply about his family. He never wanted to be called a stepdad when he married Diana. He just wanted to hear “Dad.”
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“He was their dad, and to this day he is their dad,” Diana Washburn said. “He was a great guy, a hard worker. ... They loved him dearly, everybody did.”
After the war, Darrell worked several jobs until becoming a journeyman electrician. He retired in 2010, and the Washburns moved to Riverside. He died in December 2016 at the age of 69.
Even though he wasn’t at the medal ceremony, Diana Washburn said she felt his presence.
“I thought I felt him hitting me in the back of the head and saying, ‘What are you doing?’” Diana Washburn said.
In addition to the Purple Heart, Washburn’s family accepted several other awards Sunday on Darrell’s behalf: a National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal and Bronze Star Attachment, a Combat Infantryman Badge First Award, a Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon with Device and an Expert Badge and Rifle Bar.
Darrell already had been awarded these medals, but he didn’t want to accept them while he was living. Diana Washburn estimated it took about a year for Ernst’s office to do the research and find a date when the family could come for a ceremony.
Ernst noted that delayed awards aren’t that uncommon for Vietnam veterans because everyone was coming back from service at different times and there wasn’t a proper welcome from the nation.
“They didn’t receive the welcome home we wish we could’ve given them,” Ernst said.
Now Ernst said she is making sure veterans are honored “on behalf of a grateful nation” with these awards.
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“They’ve earned and deserved these medals, and it is so important that a nation show its gratitude to those who have sacrificed so much for the cause of freedom,” Ernst said. “It’s such an honor to be able to do this, again to thank those men and women that have served before me. ... We cannot say thank you enough to these heroes.”
As Ernst handed out the medals, she explained each one to the family. Her description of the expert award — “he was a good shot” — drew a collective laugh.
The audience outside the library wasn’t as friendly to Ernst. About a dozen protesters stood outside, holding signs protesting Ernst’s lack of criticism of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. When asked about it after the ceremony, Ernst said she wished the demonstrators “had chosen a different venue and opportunity” instead of at a private event honoring a deceased veteran.
Angie Weiland, who was leading the protest, said the group specifically stayed outside the library out of respect for the family. When Ernst walked out of the library, protesters confronted her, and she ignored them.
This is not the first time Ernst has given the Purple Heart or other military awards to veterans.
She gave awards to three veterans in the Sioux City area last October and to two veterans in the Des Moines area in February of 2018.
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