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Lew Puller was the son of Chesty Puller, the most decorated soldier in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps.  His legendary father fought in five wars and rose from private to three star general before health problems cut short his career.  With him as a role model, it was perhaps inevitable that when the time came, Lew would enthusiastically head to Vietnam.  This Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography tells the story of Lew Puller's relationship with his father, his own service in Vietnam and of his heroic attempt to rebuild his body and spirit after being dismembered by a booby-trapped howitzer round.  He lost his legs and his hands were badly mangled, but he managed to hold together his marriage, help raise a son, earn a law degree and run for Congress.

Then, in the wake of losing the election, his always problematic drinking escalated to the point of genuine alcoholism and he attempted suicide.  He went through rehab and became involved in things like the Vietnam War Memorial project, which helped him deal with his ambivalence about the war; ambivalence which he expresses best in discussing why he did not join other vets in throwing his medals over the White House fence:

    As I sat silently in the dimly lit closet feeling the weight of the bronze and silver in my hand and
    studying the red, white and blue stripes of my Silver Star and the majestic cameo of George
    Washington on my Purple Hearts, I knew that I could never part with them.  They had cost me too
    dearly, and though I now 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. As I put them away, I was very sad and very tired but grateful nonetheless that
    my children were asleep in their beds in America rather than anywhere else in the world.

This thoughtfulness and undiminished patriotism inform the book and his heroic battle against injury, alcohol and depression provide for a genuinely moving human drama.

But the book has a really tragic coda, because in 1994, Lew Puller killed himself.  There is a sort of a cottage industry in Vietnam War myth making.  We've all heard about, or seen in movies, the alarming number of Vets who went nuts (remember when Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was still just called Vietnam Vet Syndrome).  Anecdotal evidence suggests that they had vastly elevated suicide rates.  And then there is all the bilge about how the troops were disproportionately poor and minority, about the effects they suffered from Agent Orange, and so on.  All of these are either complete canards or wild exaggerations, but they live on because both Veterans groups and opponents of the War have a vested political interest in perpetuating them.

It seems to me that it would be a real shame to remember Lew Puller as simply another casualty of the War.  The devastating wounds, physical and psychic, that he received in Vietnam may well have been the proximate cause of his death, but as I think this excellent memoir amply demonstrates, his feelings of inadequacy were as much a function of measuring himself against a mythic father as they were a result of a horrible injury.  His testimony of his own life and service to his country is too important a contribution to our understanding of the cultural and familial forces that send young men to war for us to reduce that life to a simple equation:  Gung Ho soldier + War - legs and hands = suicidal drunk.  We should instead take seriously his choice of titles; Fortunate Son reflects his understanding that--while war and handicap and alcohol all play their part in the tale--his story is fundamentally about a son trying to prove himself to a father and on some level reflects his belief that he had done so.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -ARTICLE: Area's 'fortunate son' dies (Rappahannock Record Thursday, May 19, 1994)
    -OBITUARY: THE WOUND THAT WOULD NOT HEAL Vietnam changed Lewis B. Puller Jr.'s life 26 years ago - and led to his suicide last week ( PAUL WITTEMAN, TIME)
    -The Funeral of Lewis Burwell Puller, Jr.
    -Lewis Burwell Puller, Jr., First Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps (Arlington Cemetery)
    -Booknotes: Lewis Puller, Jr. (C-SPAN)
    -REVIEW: of Fortunate Son, The Wreckage of an American War (William Styron, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Fortunate Son, A Hero's Son Tells of Another Kind of Heroism (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Who Killed The Pig? (Rod "Chic" Cicchetto)
    -STATEMENT: President's Statement on Death of Lewis Puller
    -REMARKS:  May 30, 1994  Remarks By The President At Arlington National Cemetery Wreath Ceremony, Arlington National Cemetery
    -POEM: For Lewis B. Puller, Jr. (Maggie Jaffe)
    -Vietnam Veterans Home Page (includes tributes to Puller)
    -REVIEW: of VIETNAM The Necessary War By Michael Lind (Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post Book World)

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