Meet the Funeral Director Who Defines the Spirit of Service & Sacrifice
Posted February 17, 2021
9 min read
There are some people whose accomplishments and sacrifices for others can’t easily be described.
Retired Colonel Don “Doc” Ballard is one such man.
Ballard’s duty to our nation spanned a period of roughly thirty years. During that time, he served in the United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, as well as the United States Army.
Among many other distinctions he’s received, including three Purple Hearts, Ballard was awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States of America’s highest military decoration for valor. Ballard received the award for heroic actions and sacrifice during the Vietnam War and today he is the only living Medal of Honor recipient in the state of Missouri.
Since receiving the prestigious Medal of Honor from President Nixon, Ballard has been a policeman, a fireman (retired as a Captain), and a successful real estate builder/developer.
Today, after making the decision to give back to his community, Ballard is proud to be a Funeral Director and owner/operator of Chapel of Memories Funeral Home and Swan Lake Memorial Park Cemetery in Missouri, alongside his wife, Virginia Ballard.
Needless to say, Ballard simply enjoys serving people—and he’s always had this same mindset.
“My career actually started when I was 14. I was in Boy Scouts and I owned my own company. It was a yard maintenance and gutter cleaning service—that kind of stuff—and I wasn’t even old enough to drive, so a buddy drove me around. But there were a lot of older people in our community, and that’s how I really got started in helping people—in public service,” says Ballard. “Then people started paying me for the services because they felt sorry for me,” he adds with a laugh.
We interviewed Ballard (who is looking forward to his fourth retirement now) to learn more about his heroic actions during the Vietnam War and to uncover more on the impact he’s making in the funeral profession.
Keep reading our three-part series featuring Ballard’s fascinating story to learn more about how he earned the Medal of Honor, how he’s currently serving people and his local community as a Funeral Director, and what lessons he’s learned that are applicable to funeral service.
It All Started with Dentistry
Hearing advice from a family friend, Ballard says he originally joined the military with the hope it could pay for his dentistry education. Ultimately, he ended up enlisting in the Navy, attending Naval Hospital Corps School, as well as going through navy recruit training.
Before he knew it, he was deployed to Vietnam to serve with the Marines as a hospital corpsman. Much like many Americans, he didn’t know much about Vietnam at the time, he says. “I went home and talked to my wife, and we tried to find it on a map together,” he recalls.
His First Day in Vietnam
Ballard still remembers his first day in Vietnam. That first day was packed with reminders about the loss of life that was happening in Vietnam.
The stench on the large cargo airplane they were on during that first trip was sickening, says Ballard. He remembers the scene to this day: “They had to fly with the doors open,” he says. “I know now it was the morgue—it was just a storage area that they brought the bodies on; we were on the plane that took the bodies back from Vietnam over to Okinawa to be flown home.”
A short while later, on a shorter ride by helicopter to their next location, they came under enemy fire.
There it was, right before him, the ugliness of war: “Everybody on [the helicopter] got shot, including [our] Senior Corpsman, and he had come to get me and train me. So after he was shot, I went from nobody, to Senior Corpsman right there…Finally the crippled bird [headed] back to base camp, and we all got off, and we treated everybody the best we could. But that was halfway through my first day,” says Ballard.
Courage, Selflessness & Devotion
The story he’s now told dozens of times—the day his life forever changed—took place on May 16, 1968. At this point, Ballard was in Quang Tri province, in South Vietnam.
That day in particular, Ballard’s unit was caught in a fierce battle with the North Vietnamese Army. Many Marines had already been lost.
“I was out in the field, saving the patients—right there with them,” recalls Ballard when taking about that fateful day.
Whenever a Marine needed help, he’d run out, putting his own life at risk, to treat them. Over a course of hours, he had made several trips out to the field to help the wounded Marines.
“This one time I came back with a guy on my shoulders—in a fireman’s carry—and I laid him down off my shoulder, on to the ground.” As soon as he did, a grenade went off, instantly blowing off the Marine’s legs.
The force of the explosion blew them both up into the air. “His body landed on mine, and he saved my life because he took all the blast.”
Immediately, Ballard started treating the man, looking to control the hemorrhage. As he helped the wounded Marine, another grenade came in, this time hitting him in the helmet.
“I’m working on the patient and it hits me in the helmet, and lands by my knees,” he says. “I picked up the grenade, and threw it outside, as quick as I could get it out of the bomb crater we were in, and it went off,” he says. Humbly describing it as “false bravery,” he admits that you don’t ever pick up a grenade truly thinking you’re going to survive.
As the enemy fire continued, Ballard heard someone behind him yell, “Grenade!”
He turned around to see a grenade had landed near him and his comrades. This time, however, he thought it was out of reach. “So I’m on my knees, but I lunged for it,” he says, describing how he was so far off balance he could only manage to throw himself on the grenade, pulling it towards his chest at the same time.
“I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I can save the other guys,’” he says, thinking he could shield the other Marines from the blast with his own body.
“But then the good Lord said to me, ‘Boy, you’re not too smart. You better get rid of it.’ So when God talks to you, you take action,” says Ballard.
Since the grenade still had miraculously not yet exploded, Ballard threw it away from the group of Marines.
A split second later, the grenade exploded, but out of harm’s way, saving the Marines and himself from harm or death. Seconds later, he continued to attend to those around him who needed medical attention.
An Act of Bravery & Daring Initiative
Today, Ballard has to smile when he talks about how part of his Medal of Honor Citation reads. It says, “…When the grenade failed to detonate, [Ballard] calmly arose from his dangerous position and resolutely continued his determined efforts in treating other marine casualties.”
Ballard jokes he’s not too sure anyone would be calm and continue working next to a live grenade. And he also knows he was able to throw the grenade away from the group after he initially dove onto it.
But the next part of the Citation surely rings true, no matter who is asked about that day: “Ballard’s heroic actions and selfless concern for the welfare of his companions served to inspire all who observed him and prevented possible injury or death to his fellow marines. His courage, daring initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of extreme personal danger, sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”
Ballard looks back humbly saying his instinct was just a reflection of his deep duty and responsibility to protect his comrades. “I had the love for my guys. That was a different kind of love that I had learned over there that I didn’t know before. It was brotherly love; it didn’t matter what skin color you had, or what nationality or your culture—we were all brothers, and we were fighting a common enemy. We got along great, no matter what, no matter our differences,” says Ballard. “We always got along and at the end of the day, we cared about each other and had love for each other.”
Ballard received the prestigious Medal of Honor in an official ceremony on May 14, 1970 in Washington, D.C. from President Nixon.
About Chapel of Memories Funeral Home & Swan Lake Memorial Park Cemetery
Alongside his wife, Virginia Ballard, who he credits for much of his success in serving families, Ballard is owner/operator of Chapel of Memories Funeral Home and Swan Lake Memorial Park Cemetery. Located in Grain Valley, Missouri, Chapel of Memories Funeral Home is deeply committed to serving families in the community.
To learn more about Chapel of Memories Funeral Home and Swan Lake Memorial Park Cemetery, visit https://www.chapelofmemoriesfunerals.com/ or call (816) 463-4030. You can also connect with Ballard on LinkedIn here.
Come back for part two in the series where we describe the accidental way Ballard got in the funeral profession.
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