Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet By Lewis B. Puller Jr.

Writing this review in 2019, I remember being moved by this story and saddened to learn that the author had succumbed to his torments 13 years after writing this moving memoir. Lewis B. Puller Jr. From birth Lewis B. Puller Jr. had some big shoes to fill. He was named after his father, one of the most famous Marines in Corps history, the legendary USMC Lt. General Lewis Burwell Puller, known simply as “Chesty”. Lewis Jr. was gifted at putting his inner thoughts on paper and he penned a heartbreaking autobiography filled with love, devotion, grief and sadness that truly deserved the Pulitzer Prize recognition. Throughout all the hardship he chose the title “Fortunate Son” to tell his story.

Lewis wished to create his own path forward and although the prestigious College of William and Mary is rich in tradition with a beautiful campus it’s not your typical military school. He is exceptionally candid about his indulgences drinking at fraternity parties. Fortunately love came his way. He fulfills his goal to become a Marine Corps officer and his mother and father proudly pinned the second lieutenant bars on him. The Vietnam War was a very brutal ugly war and before long Lewis, as a newlywed, was whisked away into another realm. While leading a patrol, a booby-trap explosion causes him to lose both his legs and partial use of his hands. Through many, many operations and accompanying financial hardships he endures to become a lawyer and makes a run for Congress. Alcoholism and family relationships spiced with a bit of humor tell the story of this veteran’s life for all to read and remember.

Lewis B. Puller Jr. This is one of the most difficult books I've ever read, a dichotomy of tragedy over triumph.

I read this in 1992 or 1993 after seeing Mr. Puller on C-SPAN's Booknotes on a Sunday night, as he told achingly of his experiences before, during, and after his service in Vietnam.

By seeing this book, you're most likely already aware of the author's pedigree: Lewis Puller, Jr. was the son of Lewis 'Chesty' Puller, one of the most decorated men in the history of the US Marine Corps, who served with great distinction during the second world war and later in Korea.

Lewis Jr. felt the weight of his great father pushing on him well before he joined the Marines in 1968, going to Vietnam as a platoon commander. Only about three months into his tour, he detonated a booby trap that had been improvised from an American howitzer round. The explosion maimed him severely, destroying both his legs, his left hand, and the fingers of his right hand. Puller would need a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His father was deeply saddened--the most powerful moment in the book was when Lewis saw his father cry for the first time, at seeing his son so gravely wounded.

As said, this was a very difficult book to read. It has an unmistakable undercurrent of depression throughout, and it was very hard for me to keep plugging away.

I suppose Puller wrote it at least partly as a catharsis, in an attempt to aid his journey of healing. And while it does have some uplifting passages, I didn't think those moments were very lasting, and in fact, I thought the book's mood was somewhat contrary to what I saw on C-SPAN's Booknotes.

After his maiming, Puller returned to college, earned a law degree, and became a lawyer. But a growing alcoholism slowly brought him down. He ran for Congress against a draft dodger, only to be trounced bitterly--and his depression darkened further. He finally stopped drinking, thanks in large part to a supporting wife who never left him in his darkest days. His outlook improved.

But it's those lingering things from his past, especially the remains of his traumatic injuries and his personal failures, that he just couldn't get rid of. Even with those relative high points, there are always those dark clouds hanging around. I just couldn't shake that sour feeling as I put the book down for the last time.

And I was saddened to learn of Puller's death at his own hand about a year after I read the book. But I wasn't at all surprised, though. It was simply a sad confirmation that he would never fully overcome his great wounds. The manner of his death affirms the book as a tragedy rather than a triumph.

Even the title of the book, Fortunate Son, is bitter. It is borrowed from John Fogerty's great song of the same name, ridiculing draft-age men of privilege who avoided the war in Vietnam. Lewis Puller, Jr. uses it with additional irony--he was the son of an acclaimed warrior, although his war experience was diametrically opposite of his father's.

This book haunts me somewhat, because from time to time I wonder if I should try it again to see if it's as uplifting and positive as Puller tried to say it was on Booknotes--maybe I was missing something and couldn't see the forest for the trees? But I remember the dark clouds that lingered over the reading, and I hesitate. I wanted so much to think of Lewis Puller, Jr.'s story as a victory over great adversity, but now I'm afraid I'll never be able to see it that way, because of how his story ultimately ended. It's a pain I doubt I'll ever want to revisit. Lewis B. Puller Jr. I don't characterize this oustanding book as military history but a family story, about a man overcoming his own family history. Lewis Puller Jr. was the son of military legend Chesty Puller. Jr., went to Vietnam, suffered serious injury after stepping on a booby trap. He went on to write this Pulizter Prize winning book after suffering enormous psychological scars. What is haunting and poignant is Lewis Jr., committed suicide a few years after writing this book. Lewis B. Puller Jr. I read Fortunate Son because a friend served in Puller's platoon in Vietnam. Although passionate about history, I had nevef read much on the Vietnam War. Puller's book was very engrossing and gave a good sense of being there. It did, however, seem to drag when he described his unsuccessful run for Congress. Ultimately the book was a tragedy, because three years after publication, Puller committed suicide due to the psychological war that never left him. Definitely recommended Lewis B. Puller Jr.


Download Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Lewis B. Puller, Jr.'s memoir is a moving story of a man born into a proud military legacy who struggles to rebuild his world after the Vietnam War has shattered his body and his ideals. Raised in the shadow of his father, Marine General Lewis B. Chesty Puller, a hero of five wars, young Lewis went to Southeast Asia at the height of the Vietnam War and served with distinction as an officer in his father's beloved Corps. But when he tripped a booby-trapped howitzer round, triggering an explosion that would cost him his legs, his career as a soldier ended, and the battle to reclaim his life began. Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet

A powerful book, but sad and unfinished as the author died by his own hand without ever really recovering from his wounds in Vietnam.

When you read a book like LONE SURVIVOR by Marcus Luttrell or American Sniper by Chris Kyle, or COLDER THAN HELL by Joseph Owen, or even a recent classic like AS TOUGH AS THEY COME by Travis Mills, you really feel like you're learning what it means to be a hero. The authors of these books are people I admired but couldn't ever imagine resembling or even imitating in any way. They just seemed like a breed above the run of ordinary men.

What really tears your heart out reading this book is that Lewis Puller was not that breed above. His father was a Marine Corps legend, and young Lewis tried hard to follow in his footsteps. But you sense from the beginning that his heart just wasn't in it. I don't say this to be superior. I was a Marine for six years and though I did my best I was well aware I didn't have it. That certain loyalty or determination that sets a Marine apart and enables him to hold it together when ordinary men fall apart. I was luckier than Lewis Puller, but no better. I could see the way he was pushed into pretending to be someone he wasn't, and the terrible price he had to pay for taking on the burdens of his father, burdens he really wasn't ready for. In the end what destroyed him just as much as his wounds, in my opinion, is that he could never forgive himself for not being the superman who would have been a worthy son of the great Chesty Puller.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is the way this book reveals Chesty Puller himself to have been a very human man. One would expect him to have been a tyrant, a brutal disciplinarian, someone like the father in Pat Conroy's THE GREAT SANTINI. If anything, Chesty Puller seems to have been very laid back, perfectly willing to let his son go his own way. The vibe I got from him wasn't that of a cruel retired drill instructor. More like a slightly doddering, absent minded and vaguely punch drunk fighter, like a retired heavyweight who took a few too many to the head in the ring. It's so heartbreaking that Chesty Puller and his son never connected. I think if they had Lewis wouldn't have felt obliged to join the Marines and volunteer for combat, and I also think his inability to forgive himself after becoming crippled really reflected a self-doubt and self-disgust that had childhood roots. Again, this is not meant to sound critical, the sadness and futility he expresses about dealing with his father were things I connected to on a very personal level.

This is a sad, sad book and I would love to give it more than three stars but there are so few lessons and the author himself never seems fully engaged in his own life. It's like he's slipping away right before your eyes. Combat broke Lewis B. Puller but he was clearly damaged long before.

There but for the grace of God go I!

Lewis B. Puller Jr. I find myself more mystified than ever about the Vietnam War and American Culture of that day. I’ve now read 4 Vietnam veteran biographies and all, but one (that would be John McCain’s), contain a common theme of disillusionment, rejection, and loss. I grieve for the veterans who suffered more from the attitude of anti-war protestors and an ungrateful nation than they did at the hands of brutal enemies of freedom. Another facet of the culture of the day fascinates me and this is the culture of cocktails. It seems that for many the ritual cocktail hour, wine and beer with dinner followed by after dinner drinks was a norm. I try to imagine the faces of my own dear friends if I were to invite them over for cocktails before dinner or for a nightcap later on. Yet today my parents celebrate a variation of this theme and I distinctly remember my paternal grandparents hosting many a cocktail hour with martinis and old fashions, cigarettes and the prerequisite “dinner dress.” What seems to be missing in many of the Vietnam era narratives is faith (Is this why John McCain is different with his bios entitled “Faith of my Fathers” and “Worth Fighting For”?). The time of the 60’s and 70’s as seen from my distant, superficial vantage point is an era when every faith, in government, leadership, religion, and traditional family roles, was shaken, not stirred (sorry I couldn’t resist). Notwithstanding, Fortunate Son is a tragic life story with a few supreme triumphs and numerous losses. The epilogue to the epilogue reveals the greatest loss of all, leaving one to ponder why and why then?

Lewis B. Puller, Jr. shares intimately the struggles of his life. With his words, I begin to know him through his most human qualities. His legacy is one of great courage. It is only after the end of the book that I allow myself to ponder the yellowed newspaper clippings that lured me to the book in the first place as it sat half forgotten on a clearance shelf at our local used book store. I am thankful for the gift of Lewis Puller to this world. And as long as there are readers of his story, history, he will be remembered and his contributions to our Nation celebrated and not forgotten after all.

He closes with this quote: “Often the only way to keep that which we hold most dear is to give it away.”

Further Epilogue:

On Lewis’ wife Toddy Puller:

On Lewis Puller III:

Mother of Lewis Puller Jr.:
Lewis B. Puller Jr. I had the pleasure of meeting Lew Puller, Jr. in 1987; an inspiration to all Marines at the time. I was in college when I read his book not long before he took his own life. Tragic in that he was given medicine that re-ignited his medicinal addiction to morphene but his story and family live on. Lew is every bit a hero to me as is his well known Father and General Lew Chesty Puller.

Read the story, and take your time with the book. The detail is superb, the life an amazing one. Lewis B. Puller Jr. Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet had been on my reading list for several years before I found the courage to read it. I knew it would be a difficult read: a father-son relationship that misfires, war, the dashed hopes of a childhood dream ending with horrific injuries, alcoholism, depression, a failed suicide attempt. CSI may have desensitized me to a degree, but this isn’t fiction, it’s an autobiography.

The son of a retired marine myself, I could relate to parts of Lewis B. Puller, Jr.’s story. My dad had retired from the Corps before he met and married my mother, so I never knew him as a marine. Although proud of his service in the South Pacific, he never urged me to follow in his footsteps.

Lew, Jr. was the son of the legendary Lewis “Chesty” Puller, one of the more decorated marines in the history of the Corps. He didn’t have to urge his son to follow him into the marines. He just came home from the Korean conflict to a parade and much hero worship. So is it any wonder that five-year-old Lew, Jr. wanted, when he grew up, to seek his own glory in war?

In Fortunate Son, Lewis B. Puller chronicles his youth, his adoration of his father, and his father’s love for him. Despite being far less athletic than his twin sister, Lew always made out his father’s cheers at little league games, even when he played poorly.

When the day came, General Puller smiled proudly when his son volunteered for officer’s training in the Marine Corps.

Eventually the young Puller, as a Second Lieutenant, finds himself in the bush in charge of a platoon of young marines. Before long he realizes he doesn’t belong in Vietnam, America doesn’t belong in Vietnam, that the Nixon administration is wrong to send her boys to Vietnam, and he comes to the conclusion—having watched several marines under his command killed—that a career in the military is no longer what he wishes. Unfortunately, two weeks later he steps on a booby trap and loses both legs while severely damaging both hands.

All of this takes place in the first one-hundred pages or so of Fortunate Son. The remaining 280 pages chronicle Lew’s recovery from his wounds as well as his efforts to come to terms with his service to his country—what he calls reconciliation: was his sacrifice worth it? Sadly he keeps coming up with the wrong answer: No.

He recounts his father’s first visit after he returned stateside, wounded; how the elder Puller broke down and sobbed, unashamedly. It was the second time Lew had seen his father weep. He also recounts, in vivid detail, the long, slow death of his father after a series of strokes took more and more of the tough marine, at first leaving him weakened, eventually incontinent and affecting his memory—at times he had no recollection that Lew, Jr. had been wounded in Vietnam. And so once again Lew, Jr. is robbed of the chance at reconciliation, at least with the man he loved the most and who, in youth, he’d most wanted to emulate. Yet even in life “Chesty” is at a loss for the right words: He can’t understand why the marines are fighting a losing battle in Southeast Asia.

He can’t understand why, for doing their duty, marines came home to be spat upon by their fellow Americans. It wasn’t a war they started; yet they were blamed for it, were seen as long-haired, marijuana smoking hippies who killed women and children. Lew saw none of the latter, but understood it happened. He never understood the media’s fascination with reporting only the bad, never the acts of heroism. Nor did they ever hold accountable those in office. The buck stopped with the marines who were only following orders.

Lew fathered two children—the first, a son, before leaving for Vietnam. After months spent recovering from his injuries and after multiple surgeries (mostly on his hands), Lew returned to school to become a lawyer. A few years later, angered by the political environment in Virginia, he ran for congress against Paul S. Trible, Jr., who’d managed to avoid serving in Vietnam for medical reasons.

Lew, with absolutely no campaign experience, ran a clean campaign; but in the end he was beaten soundly, learning that in politics it’s not important for a candidate to believe what they say; they only have to say what the voters want to hear.

After the election, Lew’s drinking escalated. The beer, which had been a crutch for him since officer’s school, had turned to scotch—to the tune of a bottle every night. He was depressed, angry, and he hadn’t yet healed, emotionally, from Vietnam. He watched the civilian prisoners return from Iran, heroes, to appear on TV as celebrities, and he shook his head in wonder over why no one ever affirmed the Vietnam veteran’s sacrifice.

All the while the drinking continues. Lew regularly got up in the middle of the night to fix himself a wine cocktail, arrived at work in the Pentagon drunk and spent his day thinking about getting home so he could have another drink. Eventually he took to keeping a pint of vodka in his desk and marveled that no one ever suspected.

One night, while watching a special about the Vietnam War on public television, Lew became so enraged by something said that he destroyed the TV. When his wife, Toddy, ran upstairs to check on him, he’d already forgotten what was said that angered him. Toddy immediately took him to rehab where he was diagnosed in the last stages of alcoholism. He spent the next four weeks searching for answers, seeking serenity, and learning that he was not nearly as important to others as he thought. Lew dried out and the book ends shortly after the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial, with Lew, clear of the fog of alcohol, at last finding a semblance of peace.

One day three Soviet veterans of the Afghanistan War arranged to meet Lew at the memorial, and Lew was surprised at the length of his father’s shadow. It seems his father is studied in Russia for his tactical brilliance. Odd, this band of brothers—only two of the four speak English. But men who have shed blood and watched blood flow share a bond that surmounts language, even culture.

These three Soviets wished to see a memorial raised in Russia to recognize the sacrifice they and their comrades made in Afghanistan. But like the Vietnam vets, they too were eschewed in their homeland. And they wished to know how Lew found his reconciliation. He tells them.

Fortunate Son won a Pulitzer shortly after its release, and rightfully so. Puller’s story is a moving one—a story no doubt that belongs to thousands of Vietnam vets. Serving their country to the best of their ability, following orders handed down to them as a result of a misguided administration with a political agenda that saw our boys as fodder. Suffering wounds, some physical, most emotional, from which they could never truly heal because, for twenty years, there was no reconciliation.

Puller had a gift for language, for writing, for telling a story, and his memoir, often poignant, at times humorous, is a moving one. His account of his alcoholism—the anger, the lost temper, the blackouts, the memory loss, and how the realization that he could never take another drink again was like losing a loved one—takes the reader into hell, only to reemerge, with Lew victorious at their side.

Fortunate Son should be required reading in our schools even if, tragically, the epitaph wasn’t written for several more years, when Puller took his own life. His wife, Toddy, perhaps to pursue her own political career, had separated from him and he’d again begun drinking. Toddy said: “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.” Were they the words of a grieving widow or merely words of deflection? Only she can know.

Rose Kennedy perhaps said it best when she disagreed with the adage that time heals all wounds. She claimed the wounds remained. “In time,” she said, “the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone.”

First Lieutenant Puller’s story is precisely why no single man should be granted the power, with a flourish of his signature, to send young men off to war—not unless he, too, has been there, at the gates of hell, fighting not for glory, honor or country, but merely to stay alive.

My highest recommendation. Lewis B. Puller Jr. Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet is the story of Lewis B. Puller, USMC, the son of Lt. General Chesty Puller, USMC, the most decorated Marine in history and the man who came to exemplify what being a Marine means (read his biography in Chesty by Colonel Jon T. Hoffman). To walk in his footsteps, especially as a Marine officer, took a courage that surfaced in this mild-mannered boy when he was grievously injured during the Vietnam War. In 1968, just one year after joining the Marines, he stepped on a land mine and had both legs and parts of his hands blown off. He spent the balance of his life struggling to overcome the damage, succeeding for almost fifteen years and then succombing to alcoholism and suicide.He became yet one more victim of the Vietnam War, as Toddy Puller said in a press interview, To the list of names of victims of the Vietnam War, add the name of Lewis Puller (Jr.). He suffered terrible wounds that never really healed. During his brief active-duty military career, Puller earned the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.

The battle he fought to live a productive meaningful life when his injuries threatened to destroy his spirit and his purpose, is the story behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning story, Fortunate Son. He now rests in peace in Section 3, Grave Number 2229 of Arlington National Cemetery.

The book is available on Google Books. Lewis B. Puller Jr.