Lewis Burwell Puller, Jr. (August 18, 1945 – May 11, 1994) was an attorney, Pulitzer prize winning author and officer in the United States Marine Corps. He was severely wounded in theVietnam War.
Lewis Burwell Puller Jr. was the son of Lt. General Lewis "Chesty" Puller, the most decorated Marine in the history of the Marine Corps. He followed in his father's footsteps and became a Marine officer. Puller graduated high school from Christchurch School in Christchurch, Virginia. Upon graduation from the College of William and Mary in 1967, Puller was shipped to Vietnam, where he was badly wounded when he tripped a booby-trapped howitzer round on October 11, 1968, losing both legs and most of his fingers in the explosion. The shell riddled his body with shrapnel, and he lingered near death for days with his weight dropping to 55 pounds, but Puller survived. Puller later recalled the first time his father saw him in the hospital. He described how his father broke down weeping and that hurt him more than any of his physical injuries. Those who knew him say that it was primarily because of his iron will and his stubborn refusal to die that he survived. Because of his wounds, Puller was medically discharged from the Marine Corps. During his short active-duty military career, Puller earned the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.
For years after he returned to a reasonably sound physical condition, the emotional ground underneath him remained shaky, though he got a law degree, had two children with the woman he had married before going to Vietnam, and raised a family. He even mounted an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1978 as a Democrat in Virginia and lost in a landslide with only 28% of the vote against incumbent Republican Congressman Paul Trible. Throughout the years, he battled black periods of despondency and drank heavily until 1981, when he underwent treatment for alcoholism. Despite that treatment, Puller continued to suffer severe depression and occasional bouts of alcoholism.
In 1991, Puller told the story of his ordeal and its aftermath in a book titled Fortunate Son, an account that ended with Puller triumphing over his physical disabilities, and becoming emotionally at peace with himself. It won the Pulitzer Prize. The title of this autobiography was borrowed from the song "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which he gives credit to in the opening pages of his book.
According to friends and associates, Puller spent the last months of his life in turmoil. In the days leading up to his death, Puller fought a losing battle with the alcoholism that he had kept at bay for 13 years, and struggled with a more recent addiction, to painkillers initially prescribed to dull continuing pain from his wounds.
On May 11, 1994 Puller died due to a self-inflicted gunshot. He and his wife, Linda T. (Toddy) Puller, had separated shortly before his death.
He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. A caisson drawn by six white horses and led by a seventh escorted his remains to the grave. As is the custom, the casket was draped in a U.S. flag. A Marine Corps honor guard led the way through the cemetery as members of the Marine Corps Band kept time. National, state and local lawmakers joined nearly 700 people paying their respects. An overflow crowd spilled out onto the grounds of Fort Myer Chapel. More than a dozen of the attendees were in wheelchairs, as Puller had been before his death. At that service, recalled the Reverend Robert W. Prichard, who delivered the homily, "He said he envied those people who had a faith that came without any sorrow, faith that came without wavering. He envied it for others, but he couldn't claim it for himself." Prichard said that most of the people who knew Puller wished that his life had been different, that his book Fortunate Son would have propelled him from his despair. "We all wanted it that way," Prichard said. "From weakness to strength, from height to height, from victory to victory." But that was not to be.
Though wounded in the Vietnam War, Puller's name is not listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is reserved for those died or who are listed as missing in action. Instead, the nearby In Memory Memorial Plaque, represents those veterans, like Puller, who "...died after their service in the Vietnam war, but as a direct result of that service, and whose names are not otherwise eligible for placement on the memorial wall."
Terry Anderson, a former Associated Press journalist, who was held hostage in Lebanon, recalled the same hope he had had for his friend, Puller. "This is a man who had so many burdens, so many things to bear. And he bore them well for 25 years," he said. "What did I miss?" Anderson asked. "I was his friend. I thought he was winning."
In a statement, Puller's wife, Toddy said, "Our family has been moved and humbled by the outpouring of affection for Lewis. The many acts of kindness from our friends across the country have helped us in this very difficult time. It is clear that Lewis affected the lives of people in ways that we never knew." Of her deceased husband, she 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." Toddy Puller had been elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1991.
In addition to his wife, Puller's survivors included their two children, Lewis III and Maggie, his twin sister, Martha Downs, and sister, Virginia Dabney.
The Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic at The College of William & Mary Law School was named in honor of Puller in 2010 with a dedication ceremony on Veterans Day.