He has taken the long way home from Vietnam: For 23 years now -- through grueling pain, through 15 operations, through alcoholism, through suicidal despair, through profound physical diminution and emotional bitterness, through wrenching rejection from those whose country he served -- Lewis Puller Jr. has been trying to find his way back, trying to come home from the country where he lost half of his body and all of his life as he had lived it before the war.
In a few weeks he will be 46. It is a birthday that will bisect neatly his life: 23 years lived before that day in 1968 when life and an enemy booby trap ambushed the young Marine lieutenant near a village called Viem Dong, and 23 years lived -- or relived, to be more precise -- since.
But the explosion that lifted Lew Puller into the air as a whole man and then set him down again as a broken man -- both physically and emotionally -- did more than just separate his life into calendar years marked "before" and "after": It also severed the connection between the person who went off to war and the one who came back.
How Lewis Puller Jr. -- son of the late Lt. Gen. Lewis "Chesty" Puller, one of America's greatest and most decorated war heroes -- managed to restore that "wholeness" and forge "a separate peace" with the country and the Corps he felt had betrayed him, is one part of the story recounted in his recently published autobiography, "Fortunate Son."
The other part is a love story -- no, two love stories: One has to do with the relationship between Lewis Puller -- now a Defense Department attorney -- and his remarkable wife, Toddy. The other has to do with his father, the man he "loved like no other in the world," and in whose footsteps he knew he was destined to follow. At least for a while.
"I was not planning to have a career in the service; I was going to give it three years," says Mr. Puller, who enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from the College of William and Mary. The year was 1967 and the shadow of Vietnam was growing darker. && "I was going to, hopefully, go in during the war and prove myself my father's son and then put that behind me."
He writes: I had joined the Marine Corps with the intention of becoming a combat platoon leader. . . . I could not have faced my father, or lived with myself, if I had chosen an easier way.
On the day that "Chesty" Puller saw his only son go off to Vietnam, the crusty old Marine wept. "It was the first time I'd ever seen my father cry," Lewis Puller says now.
Unfortunately, it would not be the last.*
Pray, lieutenant, for God's sake, pray," screamed Corporal Watson, the first man to reach Lewis Puller after he detonated the booby-trapped howitzer round on that humid October day in 1968.
"All these people were buzzing around me and I could tell by the looks on their faces that something very serious had happened to me," is the way Mr. Puller remembers that moment. A man of quiet dignity and great reserve, he says this as he sits in his wheelchair, sipping iced tea. Behind him, through the glass doors of his tree-encircled house, the late-afternoon sun shines through leaves, dappling them with patterns of light and shadow.
But in memory he is somewhere else. He is 23, stepping off a helicopter, walking toward Viem Dong amid the confusion and ** noise of helicopters landing all around.
"We had devised this scheme to encircle the village . . . and it was supposed to be, you know, a garden variety turkey shoot. When I got off the helicopter, I looked up and saw these seven enemy soldiers off in the distance. We exchanged rifle fire. Then my rifle jammed. I turned and went down a trail that I thought was secure. And I stepped on a booby-trapped artillery round."
The voice telling you this is steady, unemotional. It pauses, starts again: "It blew me into the air. And when I came down, my legs were gone and parts of both hands. My shoulder was dislocated; I could smell my right arm burning. My eardrum was perforated, parts of both buttocks were gone, my scrotum was pierced and I had dozens of shrapnel wounds."
Among the group of frantic Marines who worked to keep him alive until the medevac chopper arrived was Navy medic George Ivan Ellis. His voice over the phone from Jackson, Mo. -- where he now lives -- is matter-of-fact as he recalls how he and the other men used their thumbs as tourniquets to prevent Lewis Puller from bleeding to death. "I remember I had to make sure he didn't look down or learn his legs were gone," says Mr. Ellis, "because I knew if he did, he would probably go into deeper shock and that would kill him."
In the diary Mr. Ellis kept during his 12 months in Vietnam, he writes of that day: "We got about 100 feet from the accident and I saw a foot -- plus part of a leg attached -- lying in the sand. . . . Upon arriving there I saw it was Lt. Puller. . . . The Lieutenant was conscious the whole time and talking but he didn't know that his legs were gone. . . . We looked for the rest of him, and the rifle, but found nothing. We buried his foot.
"They scooped up what was left of me into whatever they use in a situation like that and put me on a helicopter," Lewis Puller recalls. "They took me to a naval support facility in Da Nang and started transfusing me massively. When I went into the operating room my blood pressure was zero over zero."
He still remembers exactly what went through his head that day as he went in and out of shock: "I knew it was over. I knew I was going home. And I was very relieved. Almost happy that I didn't have to command troops anymore, that I didn't have to make any of those life-and-death decisions and be responsible for all those kids."
A small silence ensues. Finally: "So I thought it was all over. And, really, it was just beginning."*
Ten days later -- after a life-threatening operation in Japan to remove most of his stomach -- Lewis Puller arrived home. He was taken to a hospital near Andrews Air Force Base, where his family and seven-months-pregnant wife had gathered, not knowing what to expect.
He writes: 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. . . . It was only the second time in my life that I had seen my father cry, and . . . I felt an aching in my heart that all but eclipsed the physical pain from my wounds.
Linda Puller -- known to everyone as "Toddy" -- was allowed to see her husband next. A new bride when he had left for Vietnam, she was first told her husband had lost only one leg; then one leg below the knee and one above the knee. "Every couple of hours his leg got a little shorter," Toddy says now. "So I wasn't sure I was getting accurate information. I just wanted to see him for myself."
"The first time Toddy saw him, she was just very grateful that his mind was intact," says Lynn Barnett, a close friend who's known Toddy Puller since 1963 when they were college freshmen together. "What she seemed to be saying between the lines was that if his mind was OK, then they could cope with everything else. I was very impressed with her attitude."
But Lewis Puller's twin sister, Martha Downs, had a different reaction at the first sight of her brother: "I really prayed that he would die," she says. "He weighed about 40 pounds. And I just thought, 'Oh, God, take him.' "
Toddy Puller, who is described by everyone as a "hero" and a woman of great strength, was not buying into that attitude. "I never did feel revulsion," she says. "And I never did worry about physical contact with Lewis. I just wanted to get him home and make him well."
Lewis Puller, on the other hand, says he "was constantly looking for signs of rejection or repulsion" on the part of his wife. He says he had known pretty quickly after the explosion that he was sexually functional but that didn't stop his anxiety. "I was pretty down on myself. I didn't feel at all like a man." Such fears were dispelled a few months later when he and Toddy resumed a normal sexual life.
Within days, Lewis Puller was transferred to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. He was there for two years during which time he underwent a number of surgeries to reconstruct his hands as well as rehabilitative treatment for his altered body.
"I couldn't do anything for myself," he says now. "I was some sort of a basket case . . . But the early victories were terrific. I'll never forget the first time I could roll over in bed without help. But then you get to the point where you stop having those small victories, and you realize this is the way it is and it isn't going to get any better. And there's a depressing acceptance of that."
One thing he had to accept was that he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. It was a crushing blow when he realized he would not be able to successfully use prosthetic devices: "I was convinced I was going to get up on wooden legs and just walk again," he says. "Because everybody else who came into the hospital was walking and seemed to be doing better than me. Of course, they were not wounded as badly as I was."
"He was wounded worse than anybody on the ward," says Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who arrived at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital a few months after Lewis Puller. A Navy SEAL team leader in Vietnam, Mr. Kerrey was wounded by a grenade and lost a leg below the knee. "One of the things I remember about meeting Lew was the smallness of him. And I remember that it helped to have a friend like Lew. We were able to be bitter with one another and unsentimental and talk about things that were impossible to talk about with other people."
But, says Mr. Kerrey -- who has remained friendly with the Pullers -- he had no idea until he read "Fortunate Son" that Lewis "was an alcoholic and that he was as desperate as he was."
No one knew. After getting out of the hospital, the Vietnam veteran had completed law school, served on President Ford's Clemency Board, held down responsible jobs, fathered a second child, run for Congress and lost, started the job he holds today at the Defense Department. From the outside things looked OK.
But all those years, Lewis Puller was descending deeper into bitterness. His father, who suffered a series of strokes, died in 1971, and the two men were never able to talk of the war. In law school, he found that "the other students were dismissive of me. They thought I was a sucker to have gone to war. That the war was wrong and I was wrong for having gone. It was very painful and there was no one to talk about it. So I just bottled it up inside."
Over the years he began drinking heavily. And secretly. He had recurring nightmares. He could not put the war and the shadow cast by the legend of "Chesty" Puller behind him. He saw a psychiatrist for several months. The drinking continued. So did the nightmares. The marriage was shaky. "Lewis was totally withdrawn," says Toddy. "He'd go off to work and that was the happy time for me because he wasn't here. Then he'd come home, drink and go to bed. We never talked. I felt very alone." She considered leaving him.
He watched as the war continued to take its bloody toll and the returning Vietnam vets were shunned or confronted with outright hostility. He thought about "throwing my medals away" with the other veterans in the 1971 march on Washington. "In the end, I just couldn't do it; they meant too much to me and had cost me too dearly," he says now.
By the time Saigon fell, Lewis Puller was convinced that his sacrifice had meant nothing: "I had lost my legs and several good friends for nothing."
Finally in 1981, after a suicide attempt and psychiatric hospitalization, Lewis Puller realized he "had hit rock bottom." He entered an alcoholic rehabilitation program and fought his way back, one battle at a time, from the psychological wounds of Vietnam. What he had to do, he knew, was "to summon the courage to forgive my government, to forgive those whose views and actions concerning the war differed from mine, and to forgive myself." Writing the book, a page a day for five years, was part of the restorative process.
And so was the country's acceptance of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. He visits it several times a year.
"I was there just the other night," he says, his handsome face suddenly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight streaming down through the trees. And what did he think when he was there, surrounded by the ghosts of 58,000 Americans?
"Well, you have to think of the incredible waste of those 58,000 dead Americans. But there's also a dignity there that's a source of pride. You know, you can post-mortem the war forever -- the war's wrong, the war's right; we fought it wrong, we fought it right -- but ultimately it doesn't matter. If you can say to yourself, 'I just did the best I could,' that's enough."
B6 Lewis Puller: fortunate son of a fortunate father.
THE PULLER FILE
Born: Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Aug. 18, 1945.
Education: B.A., College of William and Mary, 1967; LL.D, Marshall Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, 1974.
Family: Married Linda "Toddy" Todd in 1968; two children, Lewis B. Puller III, 22; Maggie, 20.
Medals awarded: Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, the Navy Commendation Medal with valor device, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
On his father, Gen. "Chesty" Puller: "He . . . told me he was counting on me to carry on when he was gone and how proud he was to have a son to continue the Puller name. We did not talk about the military . . . but there were some unstated assumptions about the course my life would take."