3 Lessons from a War Hero Turned Funeral Director

Posted March 18, 2021

6 min read

On May 16, 1968, Colonel Don Ballard was in Quang Tri Province in Vietnam serving as a Hospital Corpsman.

It’s a day he’ll remember for a lifetime.

His Marine unit had just been ambushed by a North Vietnamese Army unit employing automatic weapons and mortars. Ballard was tasked with going out into the field and helping Marines who had been injured in combat.

On this particular day, an enemy grenade landed close to Ballard and his patients. (It would be one of three grenades that he’d come into contact with that day.)

“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. In doing so, he courageously protected his comrades from the blast.

But the grenade didn’t explode immediately, and as a result, it gave Ballard an additional moment to throw the grenade away from the unit. A split second later, the grenade exploded, but out of harm’s way.

Credited for saving several marine’s lives that day, Ballard was awarded the Medal of Honor for this act of valor from President Nixon in a White House ceremony in 1970.

After serving for about three decades in a career that included time with the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Army, and time as a policeman and fireman, today Ballard—alongside his wife, Virginia Ballard—is a Funeral Director and owner/operator at Chapel of Memories Funeral Home and Swan Lake Memorial Park Cemetery in Missouri.

With decades dedicated to serving people throughout his various careers, we interviewed Ballard, as a part of our three-part series with him, about some of the lessons he’s learned over the years.

Keep reading to uncover the three moving lessons he’s learned that are applicable to funeral service.

Lesson #1: The Power of Transparency with Families

Ballard has learned the power in being as transparent as possible with families. For his funeral home, that includes posting prices, including other firms’ prices. “Even in our conference, they can call around and find a better price if they want to,” he says.

This approach comes from a place of deep respect for his families, and they can sense that when working with him, and it helps to build trust.

Another way of looking at it—as he sees it—is just being honest with families and informing them as much as you can.

Sometimes that’s about respectfully educating families on what is available. Other times it’s about giving them the ability to compare your offerings with others. Families are not experts and they’re looking to you for trusted support and guidance, says Ballard.

Part of what’s behind this belief is how Ballard and his staff truly want to help families and to help the community, he explains, and that has to start with deep trust that’s earned over time. “I didn’t get into funeral service for the money. I believe the money is secondary. We have to make sure the public knows that we’re truly there to help them.”

Lesson #2: The Power of Finding a Common Bond

Ballard has learned the importance of having courage to deeply connect with families, something he’s proud his entire staff has embraced. Part of that process involves treating them as you would want to be treated and finding common bonds by asking questions and listening. “It’s all about treating families with respect, and with transparency and honesty,” adds Ballard.

Ballard and his team have a deep sense of empathy as they talk with families. They genuinely want to hear about the deceased and they seek to learn more about them and their legacy.

“You are helping people heal,” says Ballard. “I cry with people now. I am emotional,” says Ballard. Although he may not verbalize it this way, Ballard knows that vulnerability and connecting with others is not the same as weakness.

“For a Marine, and a Colonel, and a Vietnam Vet, and firefighter and cop, I’m sensitive,” he says with a laugh. “But I really want to listen,” says Ballard. “The real issue is taking care of the family, and that is where the healing has to start right there.”

Lesson #3: The Power of Leading with Love

When Ballard reflects on being awarded the Medal of Honor for instinctively protecting his comrades during the Vietnam War, he cites how it came from a place of love. “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,” says Ballard. “We always got along and at the end of the day, we cared about each other and had love for each other.”

Today, Ballard, his wife, and his entire team continue to lead from a place of love when it comes to their client families. He says when you lead in a way where you’re caring and compassionate about people, success will follow.

“We let people know we are there for them. We get very involved,” says Ballard.

“I like doing the right thing for the right reason. I know how to take care of customers. Others might know a lot more about the funeral business than I do, but what I do know is how to care for customers. I concentrate on making sure the family is happy.”

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.

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