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Lewis Puller, Jr.
Lewis Puller, Jr.
Fortunate Son
ISBN: 0802136907
Fortunate Son
Vietnam veteran Louis Puller, Jr. discussed his book, Fortunate Son: The Autobiography of Louis Puller, Jr., which details his experiences in Vietnam and his relationship with his father, a career soldier. Mr. Puller, currently an attorney with the Department of Defense, won a Pulitzer Prize in literature for the book.
Fortunate Son
Program Air Date: May 24, 1991

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Lewis B. Puller, Jr., why did you call your book "Fortunate Son"?
LEWIS B. PULLER, JR., AUTHOR, "FORTUNATE SON" Brian, I was looking for something that captured the essence of the relationship between my father and myself. I went to a concert at the Capitol Center and Credence Clearwater Revival -- or rather John Fogerty; they'd broken up -- but John Fogerty was singing and he sang that song. That's from the 60's, actually a 60s anti-war protest song, and I just thought "fortunate son," that's what I am, and I sort of turned the song on it's ear.
LAMB: How can you call yourself fortunate?
PULLER: Well, I had a wonderful father, and I'm his son, therefore "fortunate son."
LAMB: The question was really directed at what you've been through.
PULLER: Oh yeah. Well, everything's relative. You know, I was down at the wall a couple of years ago and a reporter came up to me and he was talking to me, and I said, "Well, I'm really lucky." And he said, "How can you say you're lucky?" And I said, "Look at the wall behind me there. 60,000 young Americans who died, most of them before they were 20." I said, "I'm fortunate compared to that." I don't want to be a Pollyanna about it, but I've got a good life, really.
LAMB: Who was your father?
PULLER: My father was Chesty Puller. He was probably the most famous Marine of all times. He worked his way from Private to Three Star General, was in the Marine Corps for almost 40 years, fought in five wars, five Navy crosses, the most decorated Marine, a real hero, and that was one father. And then I had another father, the same man, but another father, and he was the father that taught me to ride a bicycle and, and shared my small victories and defeats with me, and was there to lend a hand. The same father that most people have, most lucky people. I had to separate the two and learn really ultimately that it was that second father that I'm talking about who was the most important one to me and the one that I love the most.
LAMB: Chesty, where did it get the name?
PULLER: You know, Brian, I'm not real sure. There are so many rumors and I think I've heard them all, but I think probably the most accurate was that when he marched, he tended to barrel out his chest. He wasn't a big man and he, he wasn't muscled and didn't have a big chest, but when he marched, he, he had sort of a military bearing about him. I think that's where it came from.
LAMB: One of the subheads on here is "The Healing of a Vietnam Vet."
LAMB: How hard was it?
PULLER: It was terribly difficult. I can't pretend that it's not ongoing. It's not something that, that you get completely over, but it's so much better now than it was certainly before I started writing the book and probably 10 or 11 years ago. The turning point was 10 or 11 years ago.
LAMB: Let me just hold this cover up here and we'll take a look at this cover shot here. The wall behind you?
PULLER: That's right.
LAMB: You're sitting in your wheelchair. Why did you write this book? When was the decision made to do this?
PULLER: It was something that when I was young, everybody told me that I had the ability to write. All of my English teachers and everyone who ever read any of my papers, and so I thought that I could write, but I didn't think that I had anything to say. Then I went to Vietnam and had this, this unbelievable experience and came back, and for a long time thought that I'd had the experience, but didn't have the ability anymore, and then the two came together about 11 years ago, and I just knew that, that the story had to be told.

When I got back from Vietnam, I, like so many combat veterans coming back from that terrible period in our history, we weren't allowed to talk about what we'd done, what we'd gone through. It wasn't considered civilized. It was an unpopular war and we did what most people ... We got so many subliminal signs and overt signs, that we just clammed up and didn't say anything to anybody, and I did that. I kept everything in, and it finally had to come out. That's not completely about Vietnam, of course. I think it's a bigger book than Vietnam, but the Vietnam part, my wife had never heard anything about, and she typed the first 150 pages of that book for me, and when she started typing it, we'd been married for 18 years, and we'd never talked about Vietnam.
LAMB: What was the impact on her?
PULLER: She said when she was typing, her hands were just shaking and she just was rushing through it trying to get to the next page.
LAMB: What did you do, record it?
PULLER: No -- Bic pen and a yellow pad.
LAMB: Where did you write it?
PULLER: I wrote in my bedroom. I've got a little captain's desk in there, and I would come home from work or work on it on weekends, and I'd turn on an old 60's music station and sort of get back and get into that, that framework, and listen to those songs and write the page or page and a half that I tried to do every day.
LAMB: Has this been hard to talk out?
PULLER: No, I don't think so. Ah, some parts are difficult, some parts are easy. Amazingly enough, the Vietnam part is not very difficult for me. The problem was that I was just not given an outlet. I wasn't allowed to talk about Vietnam, so that was very easy. Once it started coming out, it almost gushed. The part about my father's declining health and death was very difficult to write and to talk about.
LAMB: When did he die?
PULLER: He died in 1971. He was 73 years old. He died three years to the day after I was wounded, October 11.
LAMB: And where was he when he died?
PULLER: He was in a veterans' hospital down in Hampton, Virginia.
LAMB: How tough was that on him?
PULLER: Well, he wasn't aware of where he was. He'd had a series of strokes and each one took a little more away from him and he had what's called aphagia. He was unable to communicate and finally he was blind and didn't know where he was. And I was with him when he died, but, but he had no idea that I was there -- indeed, who he was.
LAMB: Where were you born?
PULLER: Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
LAMB: What were you doing at Camp Lejeune?
PULLER: Well, my father was the base commander down there in 19... He retired from there in 1956, and he was stationed there earlier in 1945, right after World War, right after World War II, and I was born down there.
LAMB: That makes you how old today?
PULLER: Makes me 46 years old. Makes me a tarheel.
LAMB: What's a tarheel?
PULLER: I'm not real sure what a tarheel is. It's someone who's born in North Carolina.
LAMB: What do you do now?
PULLER: I'm an attorney with the Department of Defense. I work in the office of the General Counsel. I'm a senior attorney there and I've been there for about 12 years. And, I'm trying to sort of balance that with the, the demands on my, my time since the book came out and since, since we got the, the Pulitzer award last, last week.
LAMB: Did you have any idea that you would get a Pulitizer?
PULLER: Absolutely not. I didn't even know I'd been nominated. After the book started tapering off, after it had been out for seven or eight months, my editor said, "Well, we'll put you in for the usual awards." And I thought, OK, and then the National Book Awards came out and I wasn't even a nominee, and I thought, well, this one's just been overlooked or it's about Vietnam and it's a subject that Americans have not really come to terms with. And there are a lot of people who have sort of left-wing leanings on book panels, and I thought this is not the kind of book that they're going to cotton to, and I didn't think anymore about it.

Then I came home from work a month ago, and my wife came running out to the garage mumbling something about "Good Morning, America" and Pulitzer Prizes, and I started talking about the moon being made out of green cheese, and sure enough, it was true.
LAMB: Has anybody explained to you what it was that won the prize?
PULLER: I'm not certain, Brian, but I think, before I got the prize, I got a letter from a young man and he said that when he goes down to the memorial, to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, he thinks that anybody can visit that memorial and take something away from it, be they left-wing, right-wing, conservative, hawk, dove, radical, whatever. And he said reading my book is the same way. He said that he thinks that anybody can read that book and take something sort of spiritual away from it. And I think it's that sore of healing thing that, that, not just my healing, but sort of the healing of the country, and I think that's what appealed to the board.
LAMB: Are you very political today?
PULLER: No, I'm not. Ah, I gave that up some time ago. My wife is. She was just elected to the General Assembly in Virginia, but I sort of sit back and watch her expend that 125% energy that you need to go all the time. I have no real political interest right now. I support some candidates, but I'm not active.
LAMB: You ran for Congress?
PULLER: Ran for Congress.
LAMB: What party?
PULLER: It's all in the book. Democratic.
LAMB: And, where in Virginia?
PULLER: I ran in Virginia's First District, which is basically the Hampton, Newport News, Williamsburg, the area where I grew up.
LAMB: And, why a Democrat?
PULLER: I'm not sure the party is as I would like to see it, but when I got back from Vietnam, I began to feel that really the war was a blue collar war, and that poor people fought it, that they bore the brunt of the burden -- if they came back --that they were really ostensibly fighting to preserve institutions that they would never participate in. And this colored my thinking, and led me to identify with that class and that category or people, and I think that's why I'm a Democrat today.
LAMB: Who did you run against?
PULLER: I ran against a fellow named Paul Tribble, who was an incumbent. He was my age, he managed to get a deferment from the war and he was on the House Armed Services Committee, what some people call chicken hawks, I think today. And I was personally incensed that he had the seat. I didn't think that he deserved it. I didn't think that he'd paid his dues, and sort of foolishly I said, "I'll pick up the standard and run against him," and he practically knocked me out of my chair, he beat me so badly.
LAMB: Did that have a negative impact on you?
PULLER: Terribly so. I took that as sort of a, a judgment on my Vietnam service, that it was not worth anything, that people didn't appreciate it, and I went into a real down period after that was over, and it took some time to come out of that.
LAMB: Go back to the beginning, when did you decide to become a Marine? Because you write that your dad never told you that he wanted you, he didn't push you into it.
PULLER: No, he didn't push me into the Marine Corps, not overtly, but there was all these signs, Brian. I grew up with them. I mean, we would go to the nearest city, which was Richmond, and people would come across the street, strangers, to talk to my father, and to pat him on the back and shake his hand, and we'd go into restaurants and they wouldn't let us pay for meals and ... This happened from the time I was a child, and I wanted some of that and I thought the only way to get it was to try to do what my father had done. And I tried to follow in his footsteps and it had disastrous consequences.
LAMB: Were you excited when you went in the Marine Corps?
PULLER: Yeah, I was. I wanted to do it. I didn't look at Vietnam as an opportunity and an obligation, and I was glad to go and do what I thought was my patriotic duty. And then when I got over there and looked around and saw the way the war was being fought, and particularly when I got back and saw the way the lying and the dissembling that took place in this country, it was a terribly difficult thing for most of our generation to go through.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
PULLER: I went to William and Mary.
LAMB: That's located where?
PULLER: In Williamsburg, Virginia.
LAMB: And you went to Officers Candidate School for the Marine Corps where?
PULLER: I went to Officers Candidate School in Quantico, which is where it's located, after William and Mary. I was one of those 10-week wonders. I went up to Quantico for 10 straight weeks and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and then went on to the Basic School, where they taught me most of my skills, and then I had three weeks leave and went over to Vietnam.
LAMB: Where were you sent in Vietnam?
PULLER: I was in I Corps, which is where all Marines were. We were up at Dong Hai to start out, and then down around Da Nang and an area around Da Nang called the rocket belt.
LAMB: Your first job when you got there?
PULLER: The first job -- it took about three days to get my platoon, and I had this sort of roughshod group of teenagers that were juvenile delinquents -- every one of them, and had no respect for anybody, but they were tough. You know, lean kids, and my job basically was to mold this platoon into something and then go out and perform the various missions that we had -- search and destroy, that kind of thing.
LAMB: You said that when you arrived that the platoon leader had been a sergeant, or had been an enlisted man before he got there for awhile?
PULLER: I replaced a second lieutenant who had shot his radio operator in the back by accident, so morale was pretty bad, and the acting platoon sergeant was a -- well, the platoon sergeant then was the acting platoon leader and he'd had the platoon for several weeks, so I not only had to establish myself, I had to sort of wean him away from this thing and a lot of interesting and difficult decisions that had to be made in, but he was very good. He'd been in the Marine Corps for seven or eight years. He was a 28-year-old man. I thought he was ancient. Of course, I was all of 22, all of 21 when I got there, and he was seven years older than I was, but he was very good and we're friends to this day.
LAMB: Where does he live today?
PULLER: He's down in North Carolina. I believe he runs a security program for a nuclear power plant. After Vietnam, I recommended him for warrant officer, and he subsequently became commissioned and retired from the Marine Corps after 20 years as a Major.
LAMB: The year again that you were in Vietnam?
PULLER: Pardon?
LAMB: The year that you were in Vietnam, or the ...
PULLER: I was wounded in October of '68.
LAMB: Were you married then?
PULLER: Yes, I was.
LAMB: Did you have any children?
PULLER: Had one on the way. My son was born two and a half months after I was wounded.
LAMB: How long had you been in country before you got wounded?
PULLER: I was wounded twice. I was wounded about a month and a half after I got there, and then about two and a half months after I got there I was wounded a second time.
LAMB: The second wounds amounted to what?
PULLER: The first wound was very minor, it was just a piece shell fragment in my hand. The second wounding was, well, my legs -- traumatic amputation of both legs; one at the hip, one six inches below the thigh. And fingers on both hands. I was burned on my right arm from the elbow, from the wrist to the elbow, second and third degree burns, first, second and third degree burns. I had a punctured eardrum, a dislocated shoulder, numerous shrapnel wounds, perforated scrotum, it goes on and on. About the only thing that was spared was my face.
LAMB: What kind of shape are you in today?
PULLER: I think I'm in pretty good shape.
LAMB: How do you feel?
PULLER: I have some trouble with pain from time to time. Just some residuals, I think, of being wounded so badly, but I've got energy and I'm in fairly good shape, and I have no trouble concentrating and doing what I have to do.
LAMB: As you know, the part of the book where you write about all this is very, very difficult to read for, I assume people have told you that.
PULLER: They have, and it's sort of difficult for me to understand because I've been living with it so long that it's just sort of everyday to me. It's just sort of hum-drum.
LAMB: How did you write that part, and how long did it take you, and how did you remember all that?
PULLER: Well, I went to see a movie called "An Officer and a Gentleman", and I came out of the movie, my wife and I went to see it here in Alexandria, and I said to her, we stopped to pump gas on the way home, and I said, "You know, that was pretty good, but I don't think that guy's got quite the material that I've got, and I went home and I got my Bic pen and my yellow pad and I started writing, and I tried to write a page a day. It often didn't work out that way, but I never wrote more than two pages in a day, and after I got it 125 pages or so, I started looking for an editor and an agent. I found the agent first, of course, and he eventually found me the agent, found me the right editor and the result is what you see.
LAMB: When, you got to the agent and the agent said, "I like this", what was the first thing that attracted them?
PULLER: I don't know what attracted him really but he told me that he picked it up in his office. It came in, he said the five o'clock mail. He said he was about ready to go home, and he picked it up and started reading it, and he said he looked at his watch again and it was eight or nine o'clock. He'd just totally forgotten, forgotten time, and he called me and said, "I've got to be a part of this." He said, "I just, I just want to see that this gets published, and whatever I can do, I want to do." And I said, "Go ahead and run with it." And three weeks later he had it sold.
LAMB: What, what do people tell you that, that has the biggest impact on them?
PULLER: The book is honest, and it's well-written, I think.
LAMB: But what part of the book?
PULLER: Different parts appeal to different people. It's difficult to say.
LAMB: What's your favorite part?
PULLER: I think the most powerful part is the part about my father's decline and death and my coming to grips with that. I think that's the most beautiful part of the book. A lot of people think that the war part, the Vietnam part is the most exciting and the part that moves the fastest. I don't know, Brian. There are a lot of relationships in this book that I tried to focus in on and they're all terribly important to me and I'm just too close to them to say which is the most merit. I think they're all important.
LAMB: One of the first things I noticed is you get through the Vietnam part, your father's part, and then you get to the alcoholism part. You don't let up on us when we're reading this thing.
PULLER: No. Well, it didn't let up on me.
LAMB: Are you still a recovering alcoholic?
PULLER: I'm a recovering alcoholic. I've had treatment.
LAMB: Have you ever lapsed?
PULLER: No. I haven't had a drink in ten plus years now. It'll be 11 years in September, September 5.
LAMB: It that hard for you to keep doing?
PULLER: No, it's not. It's easy. I don't know why. I guess I'm just blessed, because I know it's hard for some people and I don't know what the difference is, but I've never, there's never been, I've never come close to reaching out and taking a drink.
LAMB: How did you become an alcoholic?
PULLER: Caught it from a bar stool. I don't know. I really don't know. I don't know...
LAMB: When in your life?
PULLER: I don't know whether it's heredity. Although my father was not an alcoholic, and nobody in his family was, I think there were some people in my mother's family. I don't know whether it's heredity or just practice. I practiced a lot. I was always a heavy drinker. I drank heavily in college, drank heavily in the Marine Corps, and then when I was wounded so badly, that gave me an excuse to drink and people tended to say, "Well, if you were like him, you'd drink too." And they should have come up and given me a good right upper cut or something, and they didn't do it and it just continued. And finally got to the point where I had to put a stop to it.
LAMB: And you've been involved in Alcoholics Anonymous?
PULLER: Well, that's something that we don't like to ... there are some rules, I understand, that Alcoholics Anonymous goes by, and one of them is that you don't discuss it at the level of press, radio and what have you, and I, without saying that I'm in it, I will say that I'm in a recovery group.
LAMB: I guess that's the reason why I asked, because I don't think I ever saw that mentioned in here.
PULLER: It's never mentioned in the book.
LAMB: And, but you do mention a lot of the activities that you went through in order to...
PULLER: Yes, I do. I mention a 12 step program and working and I think I mention sponsors and a few other things, but I never come out and say that I'm in Alcoholics Anonymous.
LAMB: Do you still go to meetings?
PULLER: I go to meetings.
LAMB: How often do you do that?
PULLER: Every week.
LAMB: Every week still.
PULLER: Every week.
LAMB: I wrote something down that popped up somewhere in the book. "Essentially a loner." That's the way you describe yourself.
PULLER: I think that's true.
LAMB: What's that mean?
PULLER: I tend to sit back and process things without a whole lot of input from other people. I don't tend to let a whole lot of myself out. I don't tend to share my emotions with other people. There may be some people that would say that's not true, but I think ... and it's not as true now as it was before I gave up drinking. Certainly, when you drink you build walls around yourself, and you live in sort of a fantasy land and it's difficult to share. It's easier now. It's something that I have to work at, something that I had to learn. The book's helped me do it. The letters that I've gotten have been just unbelievable.
LAMB: Who do you get letters from?
PULLER: Well, I've gotten about 1500, I guess, since the book came out, and they usually start out, "I felt compelled to write." That word compelled is somewhere in the first paragraph, and they often say, "I've never written an author before." And a lot of them are from, obviously from Vietnam veterans, World War II veterans, Korea veterans, but a lot of them are just from people who have had trouble in their life or people who think that the book has a particular beauty that they identify with.
LAMB: Do you have some feelings about the Vietnam war and whether or not it should have been fought? I was looking for a ...
PULLER: Well, you won't find too much in there about that.
LAMB: I know, there's about one line in here I found and I wanted to ask you to ... here it is, "I also came to see that while the Vietnam war was a tragic mistake and never should have been fought, my role in it had been as honorable as circumstances would permit." Expound on that just a little bit.
PULLER: Well, after I'd been over there for awhile, it became obvious to me that we weren't going to win a land war in Asia, 10,000 miles away, and there just wasn't the heart for it in this country, and then we got out of it, I believe, dishonorably. When we pulled out, we talked a lot about Vietnamization and said that the Vietnamese were ready to take over themselves, and I knew that wasn't true. I knew if we couldn't win it with 750,000 Americans over there, that we were never going to win it when we pulled out. But as far as the honorable role, I just think that's true of me and true of most of the veterans who served in Vietnam. They went over and did the best they could under terribly difficult circumstances, and came back, back honorably, and I'll never forget that, and it has established a bond between me and a certain segment of my country that that I think is a thing of beauty in the midst of tragedy.
LAMB: On this cover, and we were, I hope I'm not talking out of school, we were talking before we went on a little bit. You said this cover kind of puts some people off?
PULLER: I fear that it does.
LAMB: Tell me why.
PULLER: Well, basically you've got a picture on that cover of a legless man with a frown, sitting in front of a cemetery, and people look at it and they think it's gonna be a downer. They think it's gonna be a sad book. They think, they're looking for something to read, they're going on vacation, they think, "Oh, my God, I'm not gonna read about something like this." They don't understand what it's like not to have legs. The don't realize that really this book is an affirmation. This book is certainly about some difficult things, but it's about some beautiful things too. It's about the power of love and relationship between a man and a woman, and a man and his father, and a man and his son, and a man and his country, and a man himself, and those are all love relationships, which are all resolved satisfactorily and for that reason, I don't think that it's a downer book.

I think it's a real affirmation of the human spirit, but you don't get that from the cover. I think maybe we'd have been better off if we'd put my wife and my children and my dog on the cover with me rather than something like this. I'm looking into the sun in that picture and people look at that and they see a scowl and they think, "This is a terribly angry man." And I'm not an angry man. I'm a very happy man today, but that's what happens when you have your picture taken at 6 o'clock in the morning and look into the sun.
LAMB: Whose idea was it to do this cover?
PULLER: I don't know. I liked the idea initially, but I've come to see that it hasn't helped to sell books. Now, now don't get me wrong, we've sold 40,000 books and we've been on a lot of best seller lists, but I think maybe we would have sold 80,000 if we'd had a happier, more forgiving cover.
LAMB: The book hit the market what date?
PULLER: I don't remember the exact date. It came out around father's day last year. I believe it was May or June.
LAMB: And what's happened since the Pulitzer Prize? Of course, it's early.
PULLER: Well, the Prize has been -- it's generated a whole new interest in the book again. The letters are starting to come in, the book's starting to sell again. We didn't advertise this book heavily, and it's been mostly word of mouth. It's a small publishing house. It doesn't have a big sales force, and a lot of people that have picked up this book have picked it up because somebody has told them about it.
LAMB: This year, you're the main speaker at the Memorial Day ceremony in front of the Vietnam Memorial, the Wall.
PULLER: That's correct.
LAMB: How did you get there? And, I know you were there last year and you've been there for a number of years.
PULLER: Well, I guess I didn't fall on my face last year and they invited me back.
LAMB: What did you do last year?
PULLER: The format for that thing is that they have four or five preliminary speakers who speak for about four or five minutes each, and then they have a keynote speaker who speaks for about 15 or 20 minutes. I'm the keynote speaker this year, although, for those of you who are listening who want to come down and see it, I don't think I'm going to speak for 20 minutes. You don't have to worry about that. But last year the keynote speaker was Colin Powell. Obviously he was just back from Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and then I won the Prize and Jan Scruggs called me. He's the fellow whose idea the Wall was, and he said, "If you've got the time, we'd appreciate if you would come down and be the keynote speaker this year." And I was delighted.
LAMB: You're a little irritated in this book about the fact that Ronald Reagan didn't come to the opening ceremony for the wall.
PULLER: Yeah, I was.
LAMB: Why?
PULLER: I've forgiven him.
LAMB: Why, why didn't he?
PULLER: I don't know. I think he was worried. I think that he is surrounded by some press people or PR people or what have you who, who told him that there might be some sort of a scene, and nothing could be further from the truth. There were a quarter of a million people there and I've never seen a better mannered group of people in my life. They were quiet, almost subdued. And, and it was such a sharing, such an unbelievably beautiful event that I wish he'd been there, in a way. In another way, I feel that we fought the war without any help from the top echelons of government and maybe it was just as well that he wasn't there.
LAMB: 58,000 killed roughly?
PULLER: 60,000 now, yeah.
LAMB: 60,000?
PULLER: Almost 60 I think.
LAMB: Names are on that wall?
LAMB: Did you always like the idea of this memorial?
PULLER: Always.
LAMB: The way it's done?
PULLER: I think it's beautiful, absolutely beautiful. There was certainly a lot of controversy about it, and I had just stopped drinking when the wall was being built, and I was unable to really participate in it, but it being built sort of corresponds with my getting well, and I tried to establish that connection in the book. And then the culmination of course, of the weekend that it was dedicated, and I went to the cathedral and read the names of the dead.
LAMB: This is what year? Tenth, eleventh?
PULLER: This is the tenth year. It'll be 10 years in, November
LAMB: There was a lot of controversy around it and I want to bring this up just to get an understanding from your perspective, of how important this still is.
PULLER: There was a lot of controversy about it, Brian, but I think anytime anybody does anything in Washington, there's a lot of controversy.
LAMB: The reason I wanted to bring it, just let me get one lick in here.
LAMB: One of the people that was in the middle of the controversy is Ross Perot.
PULLER: I'd forgotten that.
LAMB: He had given $160,000 for the design, didn't like what actually came out. And then they had the three person statue that's right around the wall ...
PULLER: Right, right.
LAMB: But the reason I bring that up is because here we are in another presidential campaign, he is high in the polls, and one of his strongest bases of support are the POW/MIA families ...
PULLER: Right.
LAMB: And all that.
PULLER: Right.
LAMB: Is this war still being fought in this country?
PULLER: I don't know if the war -- yes, it certainly is by a segment of the country. I hope it'll never be forgotten. I don't want to see people continue to fight it, but I want them to continue to keep it in front of their conscience and remember the terrible sacrifice, and the mistakes and the nobility and the savagery and the whole gamut of emotions that go into any war.
LAMB: How old are your kids?
PULLER: My son is 23 and my daughter's 21. My son was born, as I said earlier, 2-1/2 months after I got back and my daughter was born two years after that.
LAMB: How much time do you spend talking about what's in this book with them?
PULLER: Not much, not much. I don't know what it is, but I think he sort of has to work that out on his own. My daughter and I talk about it some, but I hope my son doesn't feel that he's living in my shadow, as I felt somewhat that I was living in my father's. But there are things in that book that he's gonna have work out for himself, and he knows that and I know that, and I'm here and I'm ready and I'm open to talking to him any time he wants to talk. But so far we haven't shared a great deal about it.
LAMB: Where is he?
PULLER: He just finished college at James Madison and he has a job in the area.
LAMB: Why has it been easier to talk to your daughter about it?
PULLER: I don't know. She doesn't have to ... the daughter of a well-known man, I suppose, doesn't have to live in her father's shadow. It's this son thing that's different than the daughter's, daughter/father. I don't know that I really understand it. I have a wonderful son and I'm very proud of him and what he's doing, but I have bent over backwards to encourage him not to try to pursue the kinds of things that I pursued.
LAMB: And where's your daughter?
PULLER: She's at James Madison also. She has one more year.
LAMB: How has your marriage survived all this?
PULLER: I've got the world's most wonderful wife and the book is dedicated to her. We've been together for almost 24 years now and, and she's been there for the bad parts and the good parts and has never thought once about leaving me, and early on I just couldn't understand that. I used to watch her very closely, right after I got back, to see any signs of revulsion or what have you, and I never saw any of that. It's not a relationship that hasn't been without it's ups and downs, but overall I think it's a good one.
LAMB: What's been the toughest time for her?
PULLER: Oh, I think the toughest time was probably the time when my alcoholism was out of control. She didn't have a husband then. She was having to do everything and I remember after I got back from being in rehab for 28 days, we were going someplace. There was no particular meaning to it, but we stopped at a stoplight or something, I don't remember which of us was driving, and she turned to me and she said, "It's so good to have you back." And she didn't mean to have me back from rehab. She meant to have me back with my mind and, and my powers and my spirit, those kinds of things.
LAMB: You know there are a lot of father/son relationships, and I assume mother/daughter and all that, that following in the footsteps and ... What advice, I'm not sure it's advice here, but what do you say about your own relationship with a famous father that had the greatest impact on you, and do you have any advice for people that are going through the same thing?
PULLER: Well, you can't try to measure yourself by someone else. You have to look inward rather than at someone else. You have to realize that every person is unique, every person is different, every person has his own values, his own abilities, his down defects, and live that way, and it took me a long time to learn that. It took me a long time to learn that the father that I loved so much was not the warrior. The father that I loved so much was just the father, the nurturer. And I was frankly glad to see the warrior go when he died. I had very mixed feelings about that, and that's all described in the book.
LAMB: There was one moment, and for the life ... you'll remember this. I think it may have been around the Vietnam Memorial dedication, where you're all at the Washington hotel with friends and all, and at some point or another and your wife turns to the veterans there and says, "This is Chesty Puller's son."
PULLER: That's right.
LAMB: Why did she do that?
PULLER: I don't know. We'd been with these people for two or three hours, and it was the end of an unbelievable weekend. It was the weekend of the dedication, and she was feeling kind of relaxed and kind of loose, and she just turned to this guy. She thought he might like to meet Chesty Puller's son, so she turned to him and she said, "This is Chesty Puller's son" and he didn't bat an eye. He just said, "Yes ma'am, and I'm John Wayne." And I'm sure that he didn't think that I was Chesty Puller's son.
LAMB: And for those who have never heard of Chesty Puller, what is, what's the folk lore?
PULLER: Well, the folk lore is that he is, he is almost a demigod in the Marine Corps. He's, you know, as I said earlier, the most decorated Marine of all times. He started out as an enlisted man and, and rose to three stars, and is really almost a god with the enlisted men. Even today, they say, "Goodnight Chesty" at Paris Island before they go to bed.
LAMB: What about the Korean War? What did he do there?
PULLER: Well, he led the retreat from the Choson Reservoir, which was a famous military action, and he made his first star in Korea, and as I said, there's so much about this man that the mythology gets so confused with the reality that people come up to me and say, "Did he say this, or did he do that?" And I don't know myself half the time.
LAMB: What was the impact on him when you got the severe wounds that you got?
PULLER: When he first saw me after I got back from Vietnam, he cried for the second [time] that I'd ever seen him cry. The first time was the day I went to Vietnam, and they weren't very far apart, but after that I think he tried to sort of steel himself to not show me a lot of his emotion. But from what I understand, people are writing me letters now telling me that they saw him in the period after I was wounded, and that it in effect shortened his life. That it almost killed him.
LAMB: This may sound like a shallow question, but was it harder on you or your friends and your wife and your family, after, when you went through that first period, having lost your limbs and all that? Who did you sense it was the hardest on?
PULLER: I don't know. it must have been terribly difficult for my wife. I mean, she was a 23-year-old woman when I got back and, and here I am an amputee and we have no frame of reference. We don't know what it's like to live like this. We have to find out for ourselves. We have to experiment, and she could have walked away from it all. I had no choice. For me, the battle I've had with, alcohol has been in some ways more difficult, because I can always reach out and take a drink, but I can't reach out and put my legs back on. I just have to learn to live like this. She, however, she could have gone if she wanted to, and I encouraged her to go, you know, right after we got back. I didn't stick with it for very long but, you know, I didn't think it was fair that she had to be married to a man like me, and now I realize that I'm pretty much like anybody else, and that took awhile.
LAMB: What kind of grades do you give the veterans' hospitals?
PULLER: I didn't spend much time in them, Brian. I was in a military hospital for two years, Philadelphia Naval Hospital, and then I was released from the Marine Corps and came down and started law school, and I went to Richmond to practice with prostheses for six months or so, but that didn't work out and I was just there for an hour or two a day. I didn't see any of the horrible atrocities that people are talking about. I didn't see rats in the hallway, I didn't see patients lying, around for hours at a time and, not being taken care of. I'm, sure that happened in some VA hospitals, but I didn't see it.
LAMB: What kind of treatment do you think the government has given the veterans of Vietnam?
PULLER: Obviously I don't think you can ever do enough, but for myself, I haven't had a difficult time. I haven't had problems with late checks. I haven't had problems with rehabilitation. I mean they paid my way through law school. They gave me a career after I got out. Again, I don't want to be Pollyanna about it, because God knows there are times when I've railed at the government and thought, how could they ever have done this, but I don't feel the kind of rage and the kind of despair, for instance, that you see in Ron Kovic's book. I don't feel those kinds of things that you see in, in the movies that Oliver Stone put out. My orientation is entirely different.
LAMB: What do you think of all the -- I don't even know if you've seen them all -- the many movies that have been made about Vietnam?
PULLER: I've seen most of them. I don't think any of them have been any good.
LAMB: What's missing?
PULLER: Well, Stone is the best craftsman, I think, which also makes him the most dangerous. He tells a story wonderfully, and his visual imagery and ... "Platoon" was so evocative, I almost felt like I was back there. It was very real, but on the other hand, I don't see any love or any warmth in anything that he does. I don't think that he likes people. I saw some of that when I was in Vietnam. I saw troops who would die for other troops, and who indeed did die for other troops, and that carries throughout life. And I think those kinds of things are important, and those kinds of things need talking about, and I hope that when people read my book, they will see that I consider important.
LAMB: Do you run into many people who are having, still having a lot of trouble with this and not able to overcome?
PULLER: Well, there are veterans out there that will never get over it. They are living on grates in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and Newark, and New York City, and they'll be there for the rest of their lives.
LAMB: More so than Korea?
PULLER: I think probably.
LAMB: How come?
PULLER: I don't know. I don't know.
LAMB: Any suggestions for them?
PULLER: Well, you're never down so far that you can't come back, that's all I can say. You never know when the hand of God or the hand of a friend or something is going to come along and pick you up and deliver you. And, if you're just ready and open and ready to meet it, you can put your life back together.
LAMB: One of the things it seems like you touch a lot on, and your various -- how many operations have you had?
PULLER: I don't know ... 14, 15, a lot.
LAMB: A lot of people have trouble with the morphine, or even stronger stuff.
PULLER: Right.
LAMB: They want you to...
PULLER: Dilaute it.
LAMB: What was your experience there?
PULLER: I had trouble with it. I begged for it. I was like an animal. "Give me my shots." I thought everybody was against me, but I was in a situation where I couldn't even pick my head up. I wasn't gonna go out on the street and buy it. I certainly would have, if I could, but I was in a situation where they could wean me off it. I've never had any trouble with those kinds of drugs since then.
LAMB: The scenes that you most remember, at least I do, in the book, are when you were in the hospital and somebody would be brought into your room during that period, who had severe wounds and you had to live through that. How many times did that happen to you?
PULLER: Well, of course, the hospital situation in Philadelphia, I was on an officers' ward, so we were in a room that had two people basically, and I came in, had a roommate who was legless, and I became his roommate. And he taught me what he knew and then he moved out, and then I had a roommate who came in who was severely burned in a helicopter accident. I tried to teach him what I knew, and then I moved out, and then he got a roommate who was missing a leg, and it goes on and on. One teaches the other, so it was a repetitive stage in the 60s, '67, '68, '69, that time period.

There were so many of us, Brian, that you could just look around, and if you felt sorry for yourself, you could always find somebody worse. I mean, I'm a double, below the knee, above the knee amputee, but I could look around and I could see triple amputees. In some cases, I've heard about quadruple amputees -- people who were paralyzed from the neck down, blind. There was always someone who had it worse than you did.
LAMB: What did you do, how long were you in convalescence?
PULLER: Two years.
LAMB: And where did you spend most of that time?
PULLER: Well, it wasn't as bad as it sound, because although I was in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital for virtually all of that time, for a good part of it I was living on a Marine base away from the hospital with my wife and family. And I would simply drive into work, to the hospital every day and go to therapy, and then come home at the end of the day, and of course there were periods where I had to be hospitalized for operations.
LAMB: And when you were going through therapy, what kind was it?
PULLER: Well, I had occupational therapy, which deals with upper limbs and rehab for learning how to walk, those kinds of things.
LAMB: What did you do after the two years of convalescence?
PULLER: I got out of the hospital and went down to Williamsburg and started law school. Never looked back.
LAMB: How long did law school take?
PULLER: Three years.
LAMB: What did you do after law school?
PULLER: After law school, I started a job with the Veterans' Administration here in Washington. I did that for awhile, then I went over to the White House for President Ford's Clemency Program, and worked on that for about a year. And I ran a program for Paralyzed Veterans of America, a service program, and I ran for Congress, and now I'm back at the Department of Defense as an attorney.
LAMB: What's the best think about being a lawyer?
PULLER: Well, I haven't experienced it -- making lots of money. I'm a government lawyer, and it doesn't pay very well.
LAMB: Do you want to do the private sector?
PULLER: I don't think so. I'd like to write some more books.
LAMB: What, what kind of a book is still in you?
PULLER: I don't know. My wife thinks there's a novel in there somewhere. I'm toying with the idea of doing Bob Kerrey's biography, you know, the Junior Senator from Nebraska, who was a roommate of mine in the hospital, and has a fascinating story that I think needs to be told. I just don't know that I'm the person who should tell it.
LAMB: In the back of this book, you have a quote from him. It says, "This book captures with aching immediacy the turmoil that has been our recent past." When were you a roommate of Bob Kerrey's?
PULLER: I guess it was I'd been in the hospital seven months or so, so it must have been the spring of '69, and he came in and he still had his leg on. It was, amputated while he was in the hospital, and well, he was a pistol from the beginning. Listening to Aretha Franklin tapes, and asking for a fungo bath to be on his leg and he was really a ... he was different. He was one of those who didn't need the pain shots.
LAMB: How long did you room with him?
PULLER: Well, he was just there a short time. I'd been in the hospital for awhile. He came, then he left and I was still there. He was in the hospital, I guess, for five or six months.
LAMB: Why do you find his story interesting?
PULLER: Well, I think he's sort of a free spirit, good sense of humor, he's his own person. Nobody pushes him around, and yet he's not a bully. He doesn't push anybody around himself. I admire that.
LAMB: Are you surprised at how his race for the presidency turned out?
PULLER: Yeah, I am. I thought he'd be the ideal candidate. Looking back, I think he was a little green and he had a lot of trouble getting his message out. I think he'll do better next time.
LAMB: What's the chances that he would be interested in having you write a book about his experience?
PULLER: Oh, we've already talked about it. He's amenable to it if I want to do it.
LAMB: How would you go about it?
PULLER: Well, I'd have to do a lot of interviewing. I'd have to go out to Nebraska and interview a lot of his family and his friends, and put it together that way. Try to go into to it without the sort of preconceptions that I have now about him.
LAMB: And the objective would be what?
PULLER: The objective would be getting him elected President of the United States. No, I'm just kidding there.
LAMB: Do you like him in that way?
LAMB: I mean where you could really back his Presidency?
PULLER: I really admire him. The objective would be to write an honest book, showing both his strong points and his weak points.
LAMB: What, what do you find to be his strength?
PULLER: He's his own man, and I think that's, that's something that's very rare. He's, not easily swayed, he's got humor, and yet he's -- I don't want to sit here and do an introduction for him, but I think he's a very unusual person and a very unusual candidate.
LAMB: What about the issue that we've talked a lot about during this series, on Vietnam revisited, the embargo, and the POW/MIAs? Are you one that believes there are still Americans living somewhere in Vietnam and alive, who were involved in the war?
PULLER: I don't think so, Brian. I don't know. I did Larry King as a part of the book tour, and I got the only hostile question I got in the entire tour. A statement that I thought that our government could leave no leaf unturned to solve that situation, but that personally I didn't feel that there was anybody over there, or if they were, they weren't being held against their will, and I believe that. I don't see whose advantage it would be to hold American prisoners in Vietnam. I say that realizing that there are very strong opinions and attitudes on both sides of the question.
LAMB: Have you been back?
PULLER: No, I haven't. I'd like to.
LAMB: Why?
PULLER: I don't know. I think it would be, writing this book was a catharsis and I think it would be cathartic to go back and, and go up and down the trails that I traversed as a young man and, and see the villages and the hamlets, and go along the marble mountain in the South China Sea, and see a lot of that, see if it's as I remembered it, see what Vietnam is like now. I from what I understand, it's a, it's an impoverished country, and I feel sorry about that, but I would like to go back and see it.
LAMB: Would you go back to where you were wounded?
PULLER: Exactly, yeah. I'd like to go back and sit on the exact spot where I was wounded.
LAMB: What do you think -- that would be hard, do you think?
PULLER: I don't think so.
LAMB: Do you talk about this among your fellow veterans, and how many of them do you sense ...
PULLER: Well, not a lot.
LAMB: ... would do the same thing?
PULLER: Not a lot. I don't know. The only ones I keep up with are Kerrey and a couple of people that I knew in the hospital, and from Vietnam. I talk to my platoon sergeant and my corpsman and that's about it.
LAMB: What's life like without your limbs?
PULLER: Well, everything's more difficult. You have to plan more carefully. You tend not to forget things when you have to go back in a wheelchair and get them. I rarely get out of the house and have to run back inside. I don't get into my car and realize that I've left something on the counter. Just because it's so dammed difficult to get out and go back and get it, but ...
LAMB: Do you move around by yourself?
PULLER: Yeah, no problem. I drive a car. I drove here today. My car is down in the parking garage and I'll go home and get out of the car by myself and go inside and read my mail, work on my speech for Monday. Just do the kinds of things that most people do.
LAMB: How do people treat you?
PULLER: Initially it's difficult because they have no reference point. They have no basis for comparison. But after I've been around them for an hour or so, I've taught them that I'm just another person.
LAMB: What do you sense that people do? Can you see it in their eyes, can you see it in the way they deal with you at first.
PULLER: Yeah. It's difficult if they have children. The children tend to come up and say, you know, "Why doesn't that man have any legs?" And Mommy goes, you know, "Come here, I want to hide you in my skirt." Well, it's a natural question, and most of the time it doesn't bother me. And there's that occasional day where I've gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, just like you do, and I want to grab the little bastards by the stack, and swivel and shake their heads off so, you know ...
LAMB: You talk about being fitted for a prosthesis.
PULLER: Right.
LAMB: Do you wear?
PULLER: Couldn't, couldn't wear them. Couldn't get a fit. My right leg is off at the hip, and that makes it very difficult. That involves sitting in a bucket that comes up almost to your armpits. My legs -- now they're better now than they were 20 years ago, but 20 years ago when I last tried them, they weighed about 25, 30 pounds, and even when I was going through training, all the prosthetists that trained me knew that I was not going to be able to walk.
LAMB: Because of that, how else has your life been different? I mean, would it have been better for you if you'd been able to ...
PULLER: To walk on limbs?
LAMB: Yes.
PULLER: I don't know. You know, I just can't say. There are some good things about being in this wheelchair. It's not all bad. I have a broader perspective than I think most people do. I'm able to look at people and be tolerant of their weaknesses. I couldn't do that before I was so badly wounded.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's called "Fortunate Son", and we've got about five minutes left with Louis B. Puller, Jr. What about the embargo? The embargo between the United States and Vietnam. We've never allowed trade since 1975.
PULLER: I think that ultimately we're going to normalize relations, and I look back at Vietnam now and I see a country that we walked away from. Why were we there? I mean, for what reason where we there? Was it solely to stop the spread of communism? Weren't we trying to help the South Vietnamese? Those people are still there. There are still soldiers that don't have limbs, just like me. There are still a lot of Amerasians that are ostracized every day. Anything we can do to help those people, just from a humanitarian viewpoint. I think we have to be strong. We can't let ourselves be taken advantage of, but I think ultimately we're going to have to normalize relations.
LAMB: Do you know ... do you have any sense at what time it will be normalized?
PULLER: I don't know. I don't know. I've not really studied it.
LAMB: Being an employee of the Defense Department, can you say and do anything you want to?
PULLER: As long as I make it clear that I'm speaking for myself, that I don't represent the Department of Defense when I speak.
LAMB: Did you have to have the book censored by the Defense Department?
PULLER: Well, I don't know if you want to call it censored. They did read it and they pointed out a few things that were just in error in it, and I changed those, but they didn't come in with a, with a black pencil and say, "We're gonna scratch this and scratch that and you can't talk about this and you can't talk about that." What they did was very helpful. I resented it when I had to let them read it, but they didn't censor it.
LAMB: And what do they think now that you've gotten some attention with this book?
PULLER: Well, they think it's terrific. Any group I've ever been a part of is coming forward now. From first grade all the way up. "We know him, he's got a Pulitzer Prize." I had no idea that this prize was so important.
LAMB: Had you ever thought about the Pulitzer?
PULLER: Never, never.
LAMB: Did you know what it was?
PULLER: No, I didn't have any idea, I was, up until last week, I was pronouncing it Pulitzer. I still don't really know what it is.
LAMB: And...
PULLER: I'm glad I got one.
LAMB: And what else has changed because of that?
PULLER: Well, people just look at me and they look at the book differently. They think, my God, this is some sort of an intellectual now. I'm not some sort of an intellectual. I'm a guy that went off to Vietnam, that had an uncanny ability to write well, and I don't know where that came from, and somehow I was put into these situations where I was able to give testimony, to a lot of things that have happened. To the war in Vietnam, from the combat soldier's perspective, to the memorial dedication in Washington, to being with my father when he died. I don't know why I've been permitted to be present at all these things, but I have, and I've written about them. I came back from Vietnam with the same agonizing survivor's guilt that a lot of Vietnam veterans come back with, and this Pulitzer Prize, and this book is another piece of the puzzle that tells me why I was permitted to live.
LAMB: Again, the book looks like this. It's called "Fortunate Son". Our guest has been Lewis Puller, Jr. Thank you very much for spending this time with us.
PULLER: Thank you.
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