FAIRFAX COUNTY VA — 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."