Surviving Was the Easy Part

updated 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AT TIMES, OBSTACLES ARE SO GREAT THAT THE SMARTEST THING TO DO IS GIVE UP-BUT FOR SOME GUTSY AMERICANS THAT WOULD BE TOO SIMPLE

AS A CHILD, LEWIS PULLER JR. WATCHED STRANGERS cross the street in downtown Richmond to shake his father's hand. "I wanted some of that," he says of those solemn pilgrimages of respect he witnessed in the flush of his father's fame.

It seemed then that young Lewis could never hope to match the exploits of his father, Lewis "Chesty" Puller—the most decorated marine in the history of the Corps, a soldier-God whose legend remains so great that to this day some Marine officers insist that boot camp recruits bid good night to Chesty. But in 1968, true to his father's code, Lewis Puller Jr. marched off to Vietnam, a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps infantry. He went eagerly, and one day, in the midst of a firelight, he set off a booby-trapped 105mm howitzer round, and all the myths of war and glory exploded in a pink mist. As he realized later, the spray that engulfed him that morning of Oct. 11, 1968, was his own vaporized legs. Most of his left hand and a thumb and finger of his right hand were also blown away, as well as large sections of his torso. And so he would never duplicate the 56 medals for valor that his father had accumulated over 37 years of military service, but in that one terrible moment, Lewis Puller Jr. had achieved a singular distinction: He had become one of the most gruesome casualties of the Vietnam War. "I wondered at the time if I was doing the right thing by allowing you to live," wrote the doctor who treated him on the battlefield. "Never had I seen more severe traumatic injuries in a patient who had lived."

Puller's first reaction to being hit was "elation" that he was going home. But when the narcotic haze wore off, he was enraged and despairing. He told his pregnant wife, Toddy, she must divorce him. Yet after Toddy gave birth and brought Lewis III to the hospital, something happened. "While we chatted, she nursed him," Puller wrote. "I had never seen my wife look more radiant.... I also felt a stirring in my loins as I watched my wife, and much to my amazement realized that I was aroused...." At his request, Toddy brought a contraceptive on another visit and was able to remind Lewis that life was precious.

It was as a casualty that Puller, now 46, showed that in his own way, he was as heroic as his father. There were years of painful operations, futile attempts to fashion a new thumb, hopeless efforts to fit himself into artificial legs. Two thirds of his stomach had to be removed. And always there were those deep, murky, psychic wounds: the slow conclusion that the war was wrong, the coldly insensitive reaction to his sacrifice by some, and a corrosive depression that led to a lengthy battle with alcoholism. In Fortunate Son, his powerful memoir, published last June, that would have made his father proud (Chesty Puller died in 1971, heartbroken over his son's injuries), Puller recrosses his landscape of hell. "It was something I had to do," he says. "Of course, it's not over. I wouldn't want Vietnam to go away. It was too important."

Puller seems to invite an ironic ambiguity into his life. He now works as a lawyer for the Department of Defense, where he is helping reduce the size of the military. He and Toddy, 46 (a Democratic candidate for the Virginia legislature), have two children, Lewis III, 22, called Lewpy, and Maggie, 20, both students at James Madison University, not far from the Puller home near Washington, D.C. "During the gulf war, Maggie wanted to demonstrate against it," says Puller. "Lewpy thought about joining up. I agreed with both of them." He smiles and looks down at the place where his legs would be. "I wouldn't have stopped him, because he felt he had to carry his load, but I really wanted to break this chain."

The links in the Puller chain of military command go back to the Civil War, when Lewis's great-grandfather was killed fighting in the Confederate Army. The hereditary obligation was always clear. Lewis remembers in vivid detail his father, a two-star general, taking him to a rifle range to learn to shoot. At 6, he was given a .22-cal. hunting rifle. "Of course, there was another side to my life," says Lewis, who graduated with a degree in English from the College of William and Mary in 1967, before he joined the leathernecks. "It wasn't all gung ho military, but I never doubted that I would be a marine."

In 1967 Puller's twin sister, Martha, introduced him to his future wife, Linda Ford Todd, the daughter of an Army colonel. They married in 1968. She was three months pregnant when Lewis went to Vietnam, and though Chesty broke down and wept, Toddy remained stoic. When Lewis came home weighing 55 lbs. and his twin sister prayed for his death, Toddy shouldered all the burdens.

She helped him earn a law degree from William and Mary in 1974, cleaned up after his alcoholic binges and campaigned in his unsuccessful 1978 run for Congress. "It never occurred to me that there was ever any other choice," she says. "That's what you do when you love someone."

In the heyday of the antiwar protests, Puller began to feel that politicians had betrayed the soldiers in Vietnam. During a 1971 rally, he toyed with discarding his medals on the Capitol steps. "As I sat silently...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 I could never part with them," he writes. "They had cost me too dearly."

In the late '70s, exhausted with himself from excessive drinking and unable to handle his job, Puller tried to commit suicide by closing himself in his garage and attempting to turn on his car's ignition. Instead, he passed out. When he awoke, Toddy was standing over him, screaming and slapping his face. "I couldn't even do that right," he says now. He began seeing a psychiatrist, but the drinking continued. Toddy "was a real hero," says Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Nebr.), a former Navy SEAL who lost his right leg in 1969 and spent nine months in a hospital ward with Puller. "She could have left him, because he could be pretty hard to take."

The veterans' ordeal never ended. "One day we had to be at William and Mary," says Kerrey. "There was a long flight of stairs, and I was too tired to make it. Lew couldn't get his chair up without help. And we just looked at each other—two young men in the prime of life. Helpless."

Puller declared a truce on his war with liquor on Sept. 5, 1981, and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. "I still miss it," he says, "but not enough to go back to drinking." A few years ago he began to write his book in longhand, which Toddy would type into a computer. As she read of the men in his platoon holding his stumps to stop the bleeding, burying his foot still in his combat boot, her hands trembled, and she had to stop. "You never told me this," she said. "I'm telling you now," was his matter-of-fact reply.

The children read the book after it was published. "He went through so much," says Maggie. "I never thought of him outside the chair. He was just my father, and I would tell my friends about him before they came to the house—but I didn't know."

During a book-promotion tour that took him to New York City earlier this year, Puller reflected, "You know, the pain never stops. It gets worse, but you get used to it." He brushed his hand to a bald spot on the back of his head. "Haven't I lost enough?" he asked lightly. Then he wheeled himself to a hired limousine.

"The one thing I wish," he said, "is that my father could have read the book. I think he would have liked it." Just then, as Lewis reached the car, someone—a stranger—rushed over to shake the remnant of his hand.

From Our Partners