FORTUNATE SON is an ambiguous and ironic title for Lewis B. Puller’s harrowing account of his life. He was fortunate in having for his father the single most decorated Marine in the history of the United States, the famous “Chesty” Puller. His father served his country in five wars, most famously in Korea, where he saved the First Marine Division from annihilation in the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. A man of immense courage and ability, he was also an affectionate father whose son revered and admired him, and felt impelled to follow in his footsteps.
Unfortunately—hence the irony and ambiguity that suffuses this very compelling book—Lewis Puller was never the natural warrior or leader that his father was, and the war in which he would stretch himself to meet his father’s unattainable stature was to be our greatest self-made disaster, Vietnam. The combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds that the young Marine lieutenant suffered nearly destroyed him, just has they nearly destroyed his country.
In October, less than three months after he arrived in Vietnam, Lewis Puller was literally blown apart by a land mine. Through a miracle of battlefield triage his life was saved, but he would lose his right leg at the torso and keep only a six-inch stump of his left. Puller’s terrible wound occurs about one-third of the way through the book; the next third describes his two-year recuperation at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, aided by a (mostly) compassionate and capable staff and by his family, particularly his wife, Toddy. The final third describes his failed attempt to win a congressional seat form its current occupant—a man who Puller believes escaped military service by faking a disability—and Puller’s consequent slide into depression and alcoholism. His famous father’s losing battle with disease parallels Puller’s own decline; neither is pleasant to watch, and both evoke pity and anger that these good men are so vilely treated by life. Ultimately, through a combination of courage and will, Puller finds the “balance and strength” which his physical therapist had challenged him to achieve, and the story has the happy ending promised by the legend on the cover: “The Healing of A Vietnam Vet.” No man deserved it more.