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The Suicide of General Chesty Puller’s Son, Lewis, Jr.

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One of my best is a Marine. Remember, they never die. He was a Marine sniper in the early 60s. Served a short tour in Japan and another (one year) in Vietnam. I’m not sure how many enlistments he made it through, maybe two. He joined the Marines to avoid jail time from juvenile court judge (they still did that in those days) and probably left the Corps on the same terms. I believe he held the Corps record for making it up to Sgt E-5 then being busted back down to E-3 PFC. At least four times. Always for fighting. Always with people of color, or even if they had an ethnic twang to their speech. He’s in his late 70s, but still serves as a color guard for military funerals where he lives. His great-great grandpa was Robert E Lee’s footman and saddler.

If he’d been able to read past 3rd Grade level he could have been a top sergeant, sort of like Clint Eastwood in that movie. Don’t ask he how we became friends, or why, but I’ve always been lucky that way. If I ever can get a printed version of Famous Common People I have Known published, I plan to add a few chapters, I plan to add one about Bob.

Bob has 100 stories of fights he started, was drawn into, and finished, and even a couple he had lost. But to hear him say it, his greatest accomplishment was that General Chesty Puller stop in front of him while inspecting a formation, and spoke to him for a minute. Probably the proudest moment in his life.

One of our favorite contributors here at Veteran’s Tales, MSGT Fred Barnett copied an old New York Time 1994 reprint of their story about the suicide of Chesty Puller’s son, Lewis, Jr.

This is an except from the NYT’s May 4, 1994 story by Catherine Manegold

Tens of thousands of obituaries have been written for the men who fought and died in Vietnam. More will follow as veterans age and die. But some deaths seem larger, as if they could serve as obituaries for the war itself.

Lewis B Puller, Jr’s death was on such death. It happened on Wednesday night, when Mr Puller, who was 48, shot himself in the head at his home in suburban Virginia. A veteran’s advocate and Pulitzer Prize winner whose hands were disfigured and whose legs were torn from his body by a booby tap in Vietnam, he had finally surrendered in his 26-year battle against depression, drug and alcohol addiction, despair, and perhaps, at the end, sheer fatigue.

His suicide came at a time of physical and emotional pain but professional success, a conundrum that his colleagues and friends confronted with deep sadness, and confusion.

His legacy, friends said, was not the image of his shrunken body perched on a wheelchair in front of the Vietnam war Memorial, but his book, a difficult and graphic description of his trauma and pain-filled struggles against addiction; his fight for veterans to receive fair representation in the Clinton Administration, his son and daughter; his friends and his will to live. His last great passion would be the construction of a school in a battered area that was once the demilitarized zone.

(He stepped on that booby trap in 1968, and his recovery never came, after two decades of rehab. His famous father died in 1971, he worked on the War Memorial here, the lifting of sanctions against Hanoi and the school project. he published his autobiography “Fortunate Son, the Healing of a Vietnam Vet” in 1991, and won the Pulitzer prize in 1992.)

Early last year he was approached by the Clinton Administration with several offers of work. Instead he used his computer to trace how many veterans the Administration had placed in important positions and concluded that was too low.

(Instead he began writing on veterans projects, much as we do here at Veteran’s Tales.)

(He was suffering from “stump pain” a best friend said; at the same time the effects of fighting pain-pills addiction and alcohol, creating the up and down irascibility that left his marriage in tatters. They were planning a divorce. According to later Senator Bob Kerry (the real wounded veteran), who went through rehab with him in 1969, Lewis was already pretty high strung, abusive and angry, so this was along 24 yr process for friends and family. The NYT writer didn’t interview, or report her interview with Navy psychiatrists who likely counseled and treated him, but I suspect he was always a handful. Senator Kerry said that some of the drugs prescribed by subsequent doctors may have been counter-productive to his recovery. “He inspired so many people. The tragedy in the end was that he was not able to inspire himself,” said the good  Sen Kerry.)

(Was a friend with Kieu Chinh, a Vietnamese actress, and who, with Terry Anderson and Lewis Puller, founded the Vietnam Children’s Fund was principal contact to this NYT correspondent, who said they were to give a speech to the National Press Club in the November before he died, about their school project in Vietnam and the dropping literacy rate in Vietnam. She flew in from California, and when she saw him, he was totally alone.)

He was, she said, the kindest soldier she ever knew. 

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About the Author:

Vietnam era Army JAG, Asia, 17-yr Cold Warrior in Soviet-China Bloc green zone, Been shot at and hit, but in crime, not war; twice-broken nose for lying (same fellow) hence good law school candidate; Could have been Somebody in Corporate world and politics, but at every crossroad chose to be a man with a tawdry past instead. Gave up law and am now a redeemed American.
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