Frank Lopez Sr., the decorated Marine who channeled his nightmares from the war in Vietnam into building a memorial for San Jose servicemen who gave their lives there, died Saturday from illnesses stemming from exposure to Agent Orange, the toxic battlefield herbicide. He was 64.

"He was at peace with it and near the end got to see a lot of his friends," said his son, Frank Lopez Jr.

Lopez died before he could see the "Sons of San Jose" monument, which is under construction at Arena Green, a downtown San Jose park. The polished-black granite memorial, modeled after the popular Vietnam War monument in Washington, D.C., will bear the names of the 142 San Jose servicemen who died during the war.

"War is bad, but worse is forgetting their names," Lopez said in a 2010 interview with this newspaper. He came up with the idea for a city memorial in therapy sessions for post-traumatic stress disorder three decades after his final tour of duty in Vietnam, where he won a Purple Heart medal and two Bronze Stars. He started collecting the names of fallen veterans in 2006 and in 2008 recruited other San Jose veterans of the war to help. They founded a nonprofit organization, the San Jose Vietnam War Memorial Foundation.

Toxic Agent Orange

"He was the true inspiration for all of us," said the 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 the money for construction and maintenance, the City Council approved the project in May, and backers hope to dedicate it by summer.

Frank Azpeitia Lopez was born and raised in San Jose and was a football-loving nose guard and center for San Jose High and City College. Two highlights of his playing career: suiting up against future Heisman Trophy winners -- Jim Plunkett, then at James Lick High, and O.J. Simpson, from City College of San Francisco.

Following a year of college, Lopez joined the Marine Corps and eventually found himself a young corporal in a special unit assigned to protect South Vietnam villages from attack. He learned the language, and in his words, "bonded with my village." But he also consumed on a daily basis the same water the villagers drank from wells contaminated with Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide the military used to clear swaths of jungle and grasslands.

The battle for the village of Nguc Noc, waged during the Tet Offensive in 1968, left Lopez with the haunting memory of having to decide which of the wounded villagers he had befriended could be saved and which could not. He was only 19 at the time.

Last energy push

Lopez returned home after two tours of duty, graduated from San Jose State University and began a career in high school teaching and coaching that lasted from 1974 to 2004. He coached football at Gilroy High and at Mount Pleasant, Overfelt and James Lick high schools in San Jose.

Still, he could never shake off the nightmares over what happened at Nguc Noc. They even worsened when he started teaching English to Vietnamese immigrant students.

By then he knew he was dying and might never see the monument he inspired. His internal organs -- kidneys, pancreas, liver and heart were shutting down. He had lost a foot to diabetes, a disease his son said did not run in the family. Still, he poured his last bits of energy into bringing the monument to reality.

During his last days, Lopez' family told him in detail about the groundbreaking ceremony in October for the "Sons of San Jose" memorial.

"That put a smile on his face," his son said.

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 or jrodriguez@mercurynews.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.

frank lopez sr.
Born: Oct. 5, 1948 in San Jose
Died: Nov. 24, 2012 in San Jose
Survived by: Wife Carol Lopez; son Frank Lopez Jr., daughter-in-law Alison Lopez; grandsons Matthew and Nicolas Lopez
Services: Remembrance from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, and at 4 p.m. Saturday at Oak Hill Mortuary in San Jose. Private burial Sunday at Skylawn Memorial Park.
Memorial: In lieu of flowers, donations are requested for the "Sons of San Jose" Vietnam War memorial fund. Go to www.sjwarmemorial.com for instructions.