Whether he was fighting for his community, raising funds for a POW memorial or simply being a good husband and dad, Centreville's Duane Heisinger was a man among men.
So his death Monday night from cancer leaves a deep hole in the hearts of those who loved him and in whose lives he made a profound difference.
"MAYBE THE Navy life of moving around and saying goodbyes was supposed to train us for this," said Judy Heisinger, his wife of 49 years. "But to say we'll miss him terribly would be an understatement."
They've lived in Bull Run Estates since 1992, and Duane, 75, had a long and distinguished, 30-year career in the Navy, retiring as a captain. He served three tours in Vietnam and commanded two ships — an LST (landing ship transport) and a destroyer.
"And when he went ashore, he worked at embassies and on international staffs in intelligence," said Judy. "His last overseas posting was defense attaché, London, during the Falkland War from 1980-83."
After retiring, he did consulting for companies working with the Department of Defense. He also poured his heart and soul into a book called "Father Found," telling the story of his father's life and death as a Japanese POW during WWII.
His book also helped other POW descendants find out what happened to their relatives and, said his wife, "That gave Duane a lot of pleasure."
Heisinger was diagnosed with lung cancer more than a year ago, although he'd never smoked. But, said Judy, "Being on ships, he was around asbestos and diesel fuel."
However, he didn't let it stop him from realizing his dream of being able to dedicate the Hell Ships Memorial in January in Subic Bay. It's in memory of the WWII POWs in the Philippines.
"He'd finished seven cycles of chemo and wanted to be well enough to complete the trip," said Judy. "Duane helped raise $40,000 for that memorial. It's marble and granite and has four monoliths containing words he wrote."
Heisinger's father, Lawrence, was on one of the "Hell Ships" and, said Judy, "He was buried with 400 others in a mass grave in Taiwan. So after the dedication, five of us went to the dedication of another memorial in Taiwan."
But Duane was coughing when they came home and the cancer had returned. "He started experimental treatments at NIH, but he went downhill very quickly," said his wife. "He had difficulty breathing and was on oxygen, and we had a hospital bed and Hospice at home."
SUNDAY, HE was lucid and able to talk and even occasionally added something to conversations between Judy and their daughter Jennifer. Monday afternoon, Judy was helping him change clothes, but couldn't get him to sit up without help from Jody, another of their daughters. Also lending a hand and support was Judy's longtime friend, Audrey Brickson.
"Shortly before 9 p.m., Audrey started the 23rd Psalm, and everybody joined in," said Judy. "Then we sang some songs, including, 'Be Not Afraid, I Go Before You.'" Eventually, Duane stopped breathing. "It was very peaceful," said Judy. "That was it."
"Jody said she was prepared to be angry at God for taking her father," said Judy. "But she didn't want to see him suffer, so she couldn't be angry. Before he went, there was such praise for God's graciousness to us and to Duane, and thanks for being so aware of his needs. So many people were praying for him — including descendants of the POWs — so this was God's will and mercy reaching out."
Besides his wife, Heisinger is survived by three daughters and their husbands, Jody and David Kopach of Fairfax, Jennifer and Rick Flint of North Springfield and Jeanie and John Newman of Atlanta and 10 grandchildren. His first greatgrandson is due in two weeks. And, added Judy, "I know there'll be a big celebration in heaven [when he's reunited] with his mom and dad."
Judy's president of the Bull Run Civic Association, and she and Duane were both involved in local issues. Said longtime friend and neighbor Mark McConn: "Duane and Judy started the fight against the Tri-County Connector and got our whole community involved. They organized a mounted-horseback protest at the [Fairfax County] Government Center."
At-Large Planning Commissioner Jim Hart called Duane "really a fine man and a decent person, very well-respected. His death is certainly a loss for the community." Bull Run Estates' Christine Sunda said he was "a good neighbor and friend and a strong, family man. It's wonderful that he got the opportunity to go to the Philippines for the dedication. I know that was important to him."
"Duane was such a gentleman, and an interesting individual because of his book and his experiences," added Sully District Planning Commissioner Ron Koch. "Judy and he made a wonderful pair; they were very fortunate to have each other. You could tell how much they loved each other. I felt so bad when I heard [he'd passed away]."
DESCRIBING Duane as a "very cordial person," Jim Katcham — chairman of the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) Land-Use committee, on which Judy served — said he was fascinated to learn of Duane's military career and the book he wrote. Said Katcham: "He was a great patriot and a great man."
Carol Hawn of Centreville's Old Mill community, also had nothing but accolades for Duane. "What a kind, gentle soul," she said. "And he was so generous with his time — always willing to help. He was just an absolutely wonderful person."
About a year-and-a-half ago, she said, she mentioned to him that she wanted to plant some redbud trees in her yard. And without hesitation, he invited her to come over and take some of theirs.
"So I dug up five trees from his yard," said Hawn. "Every day I see those redbud trees, and every day I think of Duane and Judith and what wonderful people they are. We'll miss him tremendously."
Funeral services will be held next Thursday, May 11, at 2 p.m. at the Church of the Apostles, 3500 Pickett Road in Fairfax. Burial with full military honors will be this summer in Arlington National Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, tax-deductible donations may be made to the Hell Ships Memorial, www.hellshipsmemorial.org or to the church at www.churchoftheapostles.org.