Frank Lopez Sr. dies at 64; sought San Jose Vietnam vets memorial

Frank Lopez Sr., a decorated Marine whose nightmares from the Vietnam War led him to launch a drive for a memorial honoring fellow San Jose servicemen who gave their lives in the conflict, died Nov. 24 of illnesses stemming from exposure to Agent Orange, the toxic battlefield herbicide. He was 64.His son, Frank, confirmed the death.

The polished black granite memorial, modeled after the popular Vietnam War monument in Washington, D.C., is under construction at a downtown San Jose park. It will bear the names of the 144 San Jose servicemen who died during the war.


"War is bad, but worse is forgetting their names," Lopez said in 2010 in the San Jose Mercury News.

The San Jose native served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, assigned to a special Marine unit charged with protecting South Vietnamese villages from attack. He grew close to the villagers, learned to speak Vietnamese and drank water from village wells, which, unknown to him and his fellow Marines, was contaminated with Agent Orange, used by the military to clear swaths of jungle and grasslands.

On Jan. 7, 1968, the village he was protecting, Nguc Noc, was overrun by North Vietnamese Army regulars. When Marines recaptured the village several bloody weeks later, Lopez had to decide who among the wounded villagers could be saved and who was beyond help.

"I was only 19 and there I was doing triage," he recalled.

Back home, he married, started a family and worked at a factory. He was plagued by nightmares of the war, but they gradually faded. He graduated from San Jose State and became a high school teacher and coach.

In the late 1990s, when he began teaching immigrant Vietnamese students, the nightmares returned. Three decades after his final tour of duty in Vietnam, where he was awarded a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and began treatment.

During therapy sessions with other Vietnam vets, Lopez learned that San Jose, unlike other Silicon Valley communities, had no memorial for its fallen veterans. In 2006 he began collecting the names of San Jose servicemen who had died during the war and recruited other San Jose veterans to help. They founded a nonprofit organization, the San Jose Vietnam War Memorial Foundation.

"He was the true inspiration for all of us," said Dennis Fernandez, the group's president. "He felt we should continue the process no matter how many setbacks might come along."

Although the group is still raising money for construction and maintenance, the project was approved in May by the San Jose City Council and could be dedicated by next summer.

Frank Azpeitia Lopez was born Oct. 5, 1948, in San Jose and played nose guard and center for football teams at San Jose High and San Jose City College.

He retired from teaching and coaching at San Jose high schools in 2004. In 2010, when his health deteriorated, he stepped down as president of the war memorial foundation.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Carol; and two grandsons.