Standing by a parade ground on a splendid sunny day, gripping his mother's hand, the son sees the father saluted and honored, and he feels stirring within the desire to earn that glory one day himself.
Lewis B. Puller Jr. is the only son of Gen. "Chesty" Puller, the most decorated Marine in history, the toughest, a pipe-chomping legend whose nickname came from the proud thrust of his torso as he marched - to Nicaragua in the '30s, to Guadalcanal and Peleliu in the '40s, to Inchon and on to Seoul in the '50s. Two sisters grew up with Lewis Jr. in the family's graceful white frame house in the small town of Saluda, in Virginia's Tidewater. Both married military men, and Lewis became one, for a time.
"It was just assumed . . . a tacit understanding," Puller said of his decision to join the service during the Vietnam War. "I really looked at
Vietnam as an obligation and an opportunity. Here was a chance to prove myself worthy of my father."
He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1967, went straight to Officer Candidate School and, in August 1968, flew to Vietnam proudly wearing the gold bars of a Marine Corps second lieutenant. He left behind his wife, Toddy, pregnant with their first child.
He never intended to make the military a career the way his father had. "I thought I would go in and sort of measure myself against him, do a three-year commitment, and it would be over."
But life has a way of springing surprises, sometimes very ugly ones.
On his way to a mission with his platoon on Oct. 11, 1968, Puller hopped down out of a helicopter to find himself facing a half-dozen oncoming enemy soldiers. He fired one shot that missed. His rifle jammed. He began running for safety, toward a command post on a nearby bluff.
Racing up a pathway, only a few meters short of his goal, 23-year-old Lewis Puller Jr. stepped on an enemy mine, detonating a booby-trapped howitzer round. The explosion maimed Puller's body - and altered his mind and spirit forever.
Two decades later, Puller wrote his story, Fortunate Son, and this spring was named winner of the Pulitzer Prize for an autobiography he felt compelled to write.
"The Vietnam vet has been portrayed with such a stereotype for so long, and usually a negative stereotype," Puller said, in the bookcase-lined den of his rancher in suburban Washington. "It was always, 'Vietnam vet robs liquor store.' We were alcoholics, dope addicts, malcontents.
"I wanted people to see we were flesh-and-blood people. . . . It wasn't fair to say all Vietnam vets were torching hooches - Zippo lighters and all that. Nor is it fair to say all we did was defend freedom and cure medical problems.
"The truth lies in the middle somewhere."
And he had another, more personal, agenda. "I wanted to show a young man who respected and loved his father, and I think that was a two-way thing." He wanted to show that he "did look at it as a good relationship, in spite of the heavy burden it also involved."
. . . A thunderous boom suddenly rent the air, and I was propelled upward with the acrid smell of cordite in my nostrils . . . I thought initially that the loss of my glasses in the explosion accounted for my blurred vision, and I had no idea that the pink mist that engulfed me had been caused by the vaporization of most of my right and left legs. As shock began to numb my body, I could see through a haze of pain that my right thumb and little finger were missing, as was most of my left hand . . . . I knew that I had finished serving my time in the hell of Vietnam.
He wrote the Vietnam part of the autobiography first, retreating at night to his bedroom to labor over a yellow legal pad with a blue Bic pen gripped between two of the three fingers remaining on his right hand. With a '60s music station playing in the background, he described the pain and horror.
Puller had never talked in any depth about what he had done in Vietnam, or about his wounding, but now it spilled out in a torrent. "Outside of the military, none of the civilians wanted me to talk about it," he said. "It's a war experience, it's uncivilized, it's dirty."
So he wrote it all down, then handed 125 handwritten pages to his wife to type into a computer. As she did, she learned that in the two decades of their marriage, her husband had kept what to him was a terrible secret. ". . . In my mind, I had spent my last healthy moments in Vietnam running from the enemy," he wrote. "I came to feel that I had failed to prove myself worthy of my father's name. . . ."
Toddy Puller's hands shook as she typed. "I just couldn't believe that's what he thought," she said. "I guess he was (running), but it wouldn't have anything to do with anything I would ever think of him. To me, when your gun doesn't work, it's what you do, it makes good sense."
Puller had been taught growing up not to show emotion, but as he wrote, trying to finish a page a night, off and on from 1985 to 1989, he found powerful feelings pouring out. "You have to remember that I had been obsessing over Vietnam for 15 years. I'd spent a lot of time in my mind just going over and over and over what I'd done in Vietnam."
His famous father didn't live to see the book. But the outspoken general who at his 1955 retirement had proclaimed, "My only regret is that I won't be present for the next war," did live to see his only son come home from it.
In my precarious state it was decided that I should see only one family member at a time, and my father was the first to enter the room. He stood quietly at the foot of my bed for a few moments, surveyed the wreckage of his only son, and then, unable to maintain his stoic demeanor, began weeping silently. He moved to my side and grasped my shoulder as if that simple act of communion would stay the convulsions that now racked his stooped frame, and I in my helpless state was unable to reach out or otherwise console him.
Lew Puller spent almost two years at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. In pain, withdrawn and despondent as the gravity of his wounds sank in, he didn't speak civilly to his roommate for days.
His weight sank to under 60 pounds. He was delirious with pain and morphine. He brooded, asking his wife to divorce him, though she was seven months pregnant. He considered suicide but realized he couldn't even toss
himself out the window.
A turning point came when son Lewis B. Puller 3d was born on Nov. 22, 1968. Puller felt his marriage solidify, his hopes lift. His father wept in joy.
Lew Puller's devastating wounds had not impaired his sexual functioning, and on New Year's Eve he and his wife resumed physical intimacy. "At first we touched each other tentatively," he wrote, "but when she sensed that I was not as fragile as I seemed and I realized that I could still perform, we forsook caution and made love with the eagerness of young lovers who had been apart for half a year."
Eventually Puller moved out of the hospital into a nearby apartment with his family, but continued rehabilitation at the hospital. Surgeons operated on both hands, and he began to learn to write again. For months he struggled to walk with prostheses, but with his right leg entirely gone and the left severed only six inches down his thigh, he realized, in time, that he would never be able to use artificial legs. He would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
His surgeries and rehabilitation finished, Puller enrolled in law school at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Many of his classmates had escaped the war with teaching or medical deferments, some legitimate, some bogus - such as the fellow who had force-fed himself a high-calorie diet to get fat and flunk the physical. Puller was glad the guy was having a hard time taking the weight off.
Puller found that those untouched by Vietnam had the most to say about it. He remained silent. The war was increasingly unpopular, and President Richard Nixon was promising to bring American involvement to an end. Puller felt stung by the indifference, even anger, that was directed at the men who had fought. He always had a fondness for alcohol, and he turned to it more and more.
His father's health was declining. Just before he retired in 1955, Chesty Puller suffered a stroke; 15 years later he had several others. It was harder and harder for him to speak or to take care of himself, and the family had to hire a nurse.
One day in the spring of 1971, not long after the birth of Lew and Toddy Puller's second child, Maggie, Puller's parents visited them in Williamsburg. When the women went out to shop and the men were left alone with the nurse, Chesty Puller tried, for the first and only time, to talk with his son about
Lew Puller found it very hard to comprehend his father's tortured phrases, but he tried to fill the gaps.
"He was trying to understand what was going on. It was just so foreign to his life experience to see this terrible divisiveness in the country. Militarily, he just didn't understand why we weren't winning.
"It was just heartbreaking. It was distasteful to me . . . I was dealing with what all my life I had seen as a very strong man, struggling to enunciate. I could sense he wanted what had happened to me to have some worth. I was his only son."
He told his father he was fine. "But my words had a hollow ring even to me," he wrote, "and I realized that this dear sick old man knew the agony in my heart and what trouble I was having finding meaning in my experience."
Six months after that wrenching attempt at conversation, three years to the day after Lew Puller's legs were blown off, Chesty Puller, age 73, died in a VA hospital. His son, alone with him, wheelchair pulled tight against the bed, laid his head on his dead father's chest and wept.
He was gone now, and I was grateful that Toddy had gotten to know him, however briefly, and to see the kindness in him before he died. I knew that my children would have their lives touched by the recognition that history had given him, and I wished that they, particularly my son, could carry some memory of him that was more than vicarious. I also wished that I had been more like him, and I wondered if I would always find myself inadequate when I compared myself with him. He had been a wonderful father, and I was fortunate to be his son; but it had not been easy living in his shadow. As darkness fell and I took leave of his grave, I wanted him back and I wanted him gone.
Many who encounter Lew Puller now hope to find in him clean, precise resolutions. The father dies, the son mourns and moves on; the war ends, the maimed soldier puts it behind him and goes on to success in his profession, pleasure in his family, serenity in his emotional life.
But, Puller said, "I don't think anything is that neat."
In the decade after his father's death, he received his law degree, moved to northern Virginia, went to work for the Veterans Administration, served on President Gerald Ford's clemency board, which heard cases of Vietnam military deserters and civilian draft evaders, and then, in 1978, ran for Congress as a Democrat and lost. In 1979 he took a position as a Defense Department lawyer, a job he still holds.
Throughout, he continued to struggle with his feelings about Vietnam, and early on he came to feel that the war that had disfigured him had not been worth it. His brother veterans' passionate rhetoric against the war during demonstrations in Washington in April 1971 "stripped me of my remaining self- delusions," he said.
He considered discarding his medals, as some were doing, but decided against it. "They had cost me too dearly," he wrote, "and though I saw clearly that the war in which they had been earned was a wasted cause, the medals still represented the dignity and the caliber of my service and of those with whom I had served. I could no more discard them than I could repudiate my country, my Marine Corps, or my fellow veterans."
He kept on drinking, a lot. Though even that was complex. "People want to be able to say I drank because I got so badly wounded," Puller said. But "I was an alcoholic from the time I was 18 years old. When I got my first beer, I wanted my second. I don't have an on-off switch."
Still, "for a lot of years, it may have helped me put the bad feeling I may have had about Vietnam at bay - have a drink and get away from it all, or have lots of drinks and get away from all that."
And his wounds led people to excuse him. "They wanted to say, 'He hasn't got much left. Let him enjoy his drinks,' those kinds of things."
He was spiraling downward, needing more and more alcohol to achieve the same numbing effect, becoming increasingly depressed and withdrawn. One day about six months after starting his job at the Pentagon, he shut himself in the garage at home, intending to kill himself with carbon monoxide. He had written a suicide note, but couldn't bring himself to turn the car's ignition key. His wife found him slumped across the front seat, drunk on vodka.
He was treated for depression at Bethesda Naval Hospital, but afterward the drinking only got worse. Inebriated at a cocktail party in Williamsburg, he threw a plate of food across the room. Intoxicated at home one night, he became infuriated by the depiction of Vietnam vets in a documentary and rammed a fireplace poker through a TV screen.
Finally, finding her husband drunk to oblivion one Saturday morning, Toddy drove him to Bethesda, where he had been treated two years earlier for depression. Puller, who was 36, was diagnosed as a mid- to late-stage alcoholic and told that if he expected to live to age 40, he had better be serious about the rehab program he was entering.
Oddly, even in the midst of my euphoria (of early sobriety), I began to turn again to my Vietnam experience and to the unresolved issues concerning it that my drinking had kept in abeyance. With a clear head for the first time in years, I felt robust and alive but also painfully compelled to come to terms with my past.
Puller took his last drink on Sept. 5, 1981. It marked the beginning of his recovery, which goes on to this day with meetings several times a week.
It was also the beginning of the end of his tortured obsession with
Vietnam. Without alcohol's anesthesia, he could sort out his feelings and, perhaps, begin to heal.
About the same time that Puller was beginning to emerge from his alcoholic haze, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was being planned and built in Washington. Ground was broken March 26, 1982, and the memorial was dedicated the following Nov. 13. It helped.
"The worst thing is the lack of validation, the lack of any worth for
what we did," Puller said. "I think I could have gotten over it if there
had been any recognition or acknowledgment, any meaning. (But) the two
common reactions were pity or else, 'This guy's a sucker. He should've known
The memorial gave some of the validation that Puller craved, "a tangible sign of the sacrifices that had taken place." He goes there every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and places a rose at the apex of the granite V bearing the names of his fallen comrades.
He is no longer obsessed, tormented by Vietnam; he has a measure of peace. Still, Puller's feelings about the war that cost him his legs and his youth remain mixed. "I grew up with this famous father always going off to do wonderful things for the country," he said. "I believed all those things about the 'Red Menace,' our ideologies locking horns and there being only one survivor." The American role in Vietnam, he believed, was that "we were going to allow them to be free. I bought everything hook, line and sinker."
And now? "Sometimes your head tells you one thing and your gut tells you something else. My head tells me it wasn't worth dying for, but my gut tells me something different. My gut still tells me there's this idea of obligation, and when America is involved in a war, the very best a young man can do is go off and advance those causes.
"Now that's wrong, but that's what my gut tells me."
When he talks about his contemporaries who avoided going to Vietnam, Puller moves around his den in a kind of pacing-on-wheels, the slightly higher pitch of his voice betraying anguish.
His head tells him they were smart. Were there such a war now, he would probably try to dissuade his own son from going - and, were he again in his youth, possibly would not go himself, though that's a much tougher call.
But in his gut, there's anger. "I very much resent the fact that people who took the anti-war stance didn't have to make any of the sacrifices."
The most visible of Puller's sacrifices - the missing legs and fingers - he has come to accept.
"I don't even think about it anymore. I just recognize there are some things I can do and some things I can't do. . . . I've been in this condition longer than I haven't been."
Then, holding his mangled hands aloft and smiling broadly: "These same hands that can't button buttons wrote a book that got a Pulitzer Prize."
I . . . came to see that while the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake and never should have been fought, my role in it had been as honorable as circumstances would permit. I had not performed perhaps as well as my father might have; but I had done the best I could. . . .
Writing Fortunate Son brought forth no grand epiphanies about his father, Puller said, but it clarified his thinking. He grew up with a man whose Audie Murphy-John Wayne life taught that when you encounter the enemy, "you charge right into them." But "I didn't come close to doing that. I hauled tail, and that was very hard for me to write about . . . .
"I pretty much lost whatever feelings I had for the mission of my platoon at that point. I was caught up in self-preservation."
Still, he mused, "a jammed rifle and six enemy soldiers in front of you - how my father would've handled that I don't know. Maybe just like I did, but I don't know. Maybe he would've figured out a way to stand his ground."
Puller knows it's unknowable.
And he has mostly given up the comparison.
"I just think you have to learn to look inward," he said. "It's a trap when I try to measure myself against my father."
So now, Puller said, to make sense of his feelings, "when I talk about my father, I talk about two fathers in one person - this great warrior who was fearless and whose judgments were always correct. That's the father his adoring public sees.
"Then there's the father who was the nurturer and who taught me things fathers teach sons, how to ride a bicycle, who shared my little victories and defeats. I didn't realize the second was so much more important than the first.
"That's why I had so many mixed feelings when he died. I really wanted the warrior father gone. I was tired of being in that shadow.
"Of course, it will never be gone . . . I'm 46 years old and I'm still introduced as Chesty Puller's son, almost as if my being is somehow connected to him . . .
"(But) now they're saying, 'Pulitzer Prize winner,' which is nice. 'Chesty Puller's son and Pulitzer Prize winner.' Not bad."