The Last Battle

updated 05/30/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1994 01:00AM

LEWIS PULLER JR. USED TO SAY THAT he already had a short speech prepared for the day he arrived at heaven's gate and presented himself to Saint Peter: "One more Vietnam veteran reporting, sir. I have already served my time in hell."

Until last week, Puller had heroically demonstrated that it is possible to survive and transcend that hell. A decorated Marine who lost his legs and parts of both hands after stepping on a booby trap howitzer round in 1968, he inspired fellow vets with his 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, Fortunate Son, a chronicle of his recovery from both his physical injuries and bouts with depression and alcoholism. But on May 11 a tragic coda was added to that story when Puller, 48, shot and killed himself in his Alexandria, Va., home. "He had fought his way out of so many holes," says his old friend Sen. Bob Kerrey, a former Navy S.E.A.L. who lost part of his right leg in Vietnam and spent nine months in a hospital ward with Puller. "In the end he couldn't fight his way out of the last one."

Those close to Puller say that in recent months he had fallen back into the vicious circle of pain, depression and addiction that he described so movingly in Fortunate Son. Late last year his 26-year marriage to Linda "Toddy" Puller, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, began to falter. Around the same time, Puller had become hooked on a prescription painkiller that eased his "slump pain." Last January he checked into Bethesda Naval Hospital to shake the addiction, but he fell out of a wheelchair there and broke his hip. The ordeal of trying to get through the pain without using drugs prompted Puller to begin drinking again.

In those dark, isolated days, Puller began questioning whether he was worthy of the admiration that his book had brought. "He became massively depressed," says Kerrey. "He was falling into a great pit of self-pity."

Born in Camp Lejeune, N.C., Puller was the only son of Gen. Lewis "Chesty" Puller Sr., a legendary leatherneck whose exploits in World War II and Korea made him the most decorated officer in Marine Corps history. Puller Jr. fell that his father was "a demigod to every enlisted man," something illustrated by the number of Marines who would travel miles just to meet him at his retirement home in rural Saluda, Va. But Chesty—who died following a series of strokes in 1971—had also been a devoted husband to his wife, Virginia, and a loving father to young Lew and his sisters, Martha and Virginia. "It took me years to realize that I could never hope to emulate the legend that was Chesty Puller," Lewis wrote, "but I knew even then that I loved the man far more than the legend."

Puller joined the Marines after graduating from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., in 1967. The following summer he married Toddy, his sister's college roommate, and soon shipped out for Vietnam as a second lieutenant. In Fortunate Son he described the moment on Oct. 11, 1968—less than three months into his tour—when he stepped on a mine. "I had no idea," he wrote, "that the pink mist that engulfed me had been caused by the vaporization of most of my right and left legs."

Puller returned home angry that he had survived. But Toddy taught him that life still had meaning. She soon gave birth to a son, Lewis III, now 25 and a golf instructor. (The couple's second child, Maggie, 23, is a college student in Alaska.) Puller earned a law degree at William and Mary in 1974. Four years later he ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a Virginia congressional seal. But the demons continued to torment him. A botched suicide attempt in 1979 led Puller to eventually give up drinking and begin painfully writing his memoir in longhand.

Puller's sad end seemed to support the belief of many veterans' groups—though no hard statistics are available to back up the claim—that Vietnam vets are committing suicide in alarming numbers. "There are 58,000 names on the wall in Washington," says Jan Scruggs, a founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "Probably more than twice as many veterans have committed suicide as were killed in the war."

DAVID ELLIS
LINDA KRAMER in Washington

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