Book Review: Fortunate Son by Lewis B. Puller Jr.

Intro

I am trying to get caught up on the Boon Reviews. I love reading a good book and then writing about it.

Lewis B. Puller’s 1991 book “Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

This book hit close to home. I know what’s like to go to the war the son of a military legend. I know what’s like to be wounded and to suffer through years of rehabilitation, depression and attempt to live up to a father’s one-sided legacy.

My own story is nothing compared to Lewis B. Puller Jr.’s. My writing is not as wonderful. This is a brilliant, painful and important book.

Like Eugene Sledge, Puller, is a proud veteran of the 1st Marine Division. Like Sledge, Puller deals with his demons through writing. The outcome of his story is heroic and tragic.

The story of this brave Marine made me proud and broke my heart. His journey is one of the best I’ve read about the nightmare that was Vietnam.

Muna and I listened to this book on audio. The book was narrated by Puller. He is a measured and intense narrator. The last ten seconds of the book made us both cry, you’ll find out why later.

Biography

Lewis B. Puller Jr. was born in Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1945. Puller was the son of Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine of all time.

Puller served in Vietnam as a Marine Infantry Rifle Platoon Commander. He was awarded the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry for his service.

He graduated in 1967 from the College of William and Mary, where he also earned a law degree. In 1978, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress.

In 1979, Mr. Puller worked as a senior lawyer in the Defense Department. He died in 1994.

Summary

Puller’s autobiography recounts his tragic life, a Marine who lost both of his legs and part of both hands while serving his country in Vietnam.

Lewis B. Puller was the son of Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in American history. Puller recounts from the time he was a boy, there were unspoken assumptions about the course his life should take.

Puller felt a certain obligation to be a Marine because he was Chesty’s only son and heir to the Puller name. Puller joins the Marine Corps while still in college. Puller meets a beautiful woman named Toddy.

Puller becomes a Marine Officer. Just before going to Vietnam he finds out that Toddy is pregnant. They get married just before Puller leaves.

Puller is sent to Vietnam as an Infantry Platoon Commander. Within three months he returns home to the States missing two legs and most of his hands.

In the book, he told of stepping on a booby trapped howitzer round while he was in Vietnam. “I felt as if I had been airborne forever,” he wrote. “I had no idea that the pink mist that engulfed me had been caused by the vaporization of most of my right and left legs.” Wounds That Never Healed.

His body was mangled. Puller was is in endless agony during his painful physical recovery of years of surgery and rehabilitation.

His wife stays by his side through it all. His son is born while he is the hospital.

Puller fights to regain a purpose to his life. Puller nearly succumbed to relentless pain, depression, alcoholism and a father’s unrequited legacy. Against all odds, he survives his wounds and goes on to earn a law degree from the prestigious William and Mary College.

Puller feels bitter about how America treats Vietnam warriors, veterans of an unpopular and “lost” war. He runs for congress and loses. To his disgust, he loses to a man who was elected on the strength of his pro-military stance, even though he avoided service in Vietnam.

Puller helped to organize and build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982.

Puller’s amazing book is an account of his journey from alienation to reconciliation with a nation that had sent him to war.

Analysis

Even the cover demands your attention and respect. On the cover of the book is the image of Puller’s shrunken body perched on a wheelchair in front of the Vietnam War Memorial. The book is beautiful, haunting and tragic.

Lewis B. Puller is a wonderful writer. He is intelligent and caring. He writes with a clarity and accuracy that makes reading about difficult subjects (war, trauma, and suffering) easier to absorb.

His prose at the sentence level is devastating and haunting:

“I listened in on my father’s conversations with his colleagues and acquaintances while I was growing up, and I unconsciously adopted his politics and philosophy as my own. Most of the admirers who came to share his wisdom were already predisposed to accept his words as gospel; Father’s personality was so strong and his delivery so forceful that I saw very few people who ever seemed to express disagreement with his stands on issues.”

Puller sees his emotional wounds and the country’s emotional wounds over Vietnam in a larger context in the book. His father’s long heroic shadow haunts him throughout his life.

Puller gives an open and graphic description of his pain and trauma after Vietnam. He talks about his pain-filled struggles with alcohol and addiction.

In the war Puller lost his legs, most of his hands and some of his self-respect. He felt he lost his future, half of his body and dreams to a war that his fellow Americans thought was a mistake. Vietnam destroyed his life.

Puller paid a high-price to make his father proud. Puller admired and loved his father deeply. Puller felt he made an honorable sacrifice for an uncaring country that treated its Vietnam veterans like dirt.

His grisly physical and traumatic emotional injuries were almost too big for any one man to overcome, but overcome them he did.

He graduated from law school, was married to an amazing women with two wonderful kids, and ran for public office. Puller helped to organize the Vietnam Veteran Memorial.

His book is a chronicle of a man who needed to be a kind of different hero, one who overcame his enormous physical and psychological scars to find a courage- and a victory- all his own.

Final Statement

On May 11, 1994, Lewis Puller Jr’s victory in his ongoing battle ended, when he took his own life. His death maybe another casualty of the Vietnam War due to his long-suffering from his wounds.

This last part of the book devastated me. After hours of wonderful listening to Puller tell his heroic tale, another narrator cuts in and tells us how he died. I learned a lot from this book.

His wife Toddy Puller said in a statement: “To the list of names of victims of the Vietnam War, add the name of Lewis Puller. He suffered terrible wounds that never really healed.”

His death could serve as reminder and obituary for the war itself.