ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The very first day he donned a floppy bush hat and took command of his Marine platoon in the bad news boondocks of Vietnam's northern "Eye" Corps, Lew Puller was asked the question that from his earliest remembrance determined his destiny.
"What's it like," asked Willie Turner, a huge corporal from Texas, who was the platoon guide on patrols into Charley country, "to be the son of the Corps' most famous Marine?"
A drill instructor at Quantico, Va., peering out from under the menacing tilt of his campaign hat at a new batch of officer candidates, had phrased that same question in basic Leatherneckese a few months before: "Now who among this miserable collection of pukes could possibly be Chesty Puller's son?"
Lewis (Chesty) Puller, winner of five Navy crosses, hero of Guadalcanal during World War II, the Inchon landing and the breakout from the Chosin reservoir during the Korean War, the most decorated Marine in the history of the Corps. A one-time private, he rose to major general in a 37-year-career that began with chasing bandits in Nicaragua and the Horse Marines in Beijing, and in retirement left him broken and in tears, leaning over a bed in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, surveying the wreckage of his only son.
Less than three months in Vietnam, climbing a nameless hill with a jammed rifle, while trying to evade seven North Vietnamese regulars, 2nd Lt. Lewis B. Puller Jr., Chesty's boy, detonated a howitzer shell booby trap that propelled him upward with a thunderous roar amid an acrid smell of cordite.
Drifting in and out of consciousness as they loaded him aboard a helicopter on a stretcher that also contained a combat boot with the bloody remnants of one foot, he had a recurring thought: "I had spent my last healthy moments in Vietnam running from the enemy. I had failed to prove myself worthy of my father's name."
The Puller inheritance, as he was often reminded around the family dining table that had belonged to Robert E. Lee's aide-de-camp, included a great-grandfather shot out of the saddle with Jeb Stuart's cavalry, a great-uncle who commanded a division at Gettysburg, a cousin named George S. Patton.
On that humid October day in 1968, near the crest of a sandy bluff overlooking a lethal stretch of beach, hedgerows and unfriendly thatched villages along the South China Sea known as the "Riviera," the Vietnam War should have been over for what was left of the 23-year-old Lew Puller. But for him, the war was only beginning. It was against a more terrifying enemy than Chesty Puller ever faced: the enemy within.
Lew's brief career in the Marine Corps had netted him two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star and a lifetime confinement in a wheelchair with his right leg gone below the hip, a 6-inch stump remaining of his left thigh, a thumb and little finger missing from his right hand and only a thumb and half a forefinger remaining on his left hand.
When Dad came home after V-J Day that ended World War II, crowds were cheering, bands playing and politicians baying the accolades of a grateful nation. Now, from New York to Los Angeles cities across the country are welcoming back troops from the Persian Gulf War with blizzards of confetti down a flag-draped canyon of heroes.
Chesty's boy, watching on TV from a wheelchair in his Alexandria home, still wonders what happened to his parade. He is about to embark on a nationwide tour that will take him to some of those cities where confetti and flags will be flying, to promote and defend "Fortunate Son," his remarkable autobiography.
It is a harrowing account of the lonely battles he fought against despondency, despair and alcoholism to come to terms with the father he "loved more than the legend" and to find it in his heart to forgive the country and Corps that he felt had betrayed him.
Like driving out at odd hours in his handicap-geared car to place a single red rose at the apex of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and to stare at his own reflection in the polished black granite etched with the names of so many of his buddies, he regards the four years spent reliving the war for his memoirs as part of the healing process.
To an interviewer, he admits to "agonizing a lot over the acclaim showered on those returning home from Desert Storm." He is glad casualties were so few but wonders if the mood of the nation would have changed had those aluminum coffins begun piling up at the Dover, Del., morgue.
Lew Puller, like many Vietnam vets, came home to rejection, scorn and defeat. His friends didn't want to talk about the war. Mere mention of it embarrassed the neighbors, put the damper on any party. "How did it feel," a university professor asked one of his Vietnam buddies, "to be a paid killer?"