There's a School on the DMZ

Story by R. R. Keene
Photos pertaining to this article are at the end

There's a school on the old Demilitarized Zone which straddled the 17th parallel in Vietnam.

There's a school where Marines and North Vietnamese soldiers lobbed mortar, rocket, artillery rounds and strewed mines into shell craters caused by other mortar, rocket, artillery rounds and mines- There's a school in that country where Marine First Lieutenant Lewis B. Puller Jr. had his legs blown off by a mine 29 years ago, a school with Puller's name on it.

It's off old Highway I, where six-by trucks, weighted with sandbags, convoyed Marines and combat supplies in and out of Dong Ha. Dong Ha: It went with Con Thien, Cam Lo and Gio Linh and became known bitterly as Leatherneck Square. Back then, every Marine in dirt-red utilities knew nothing- good would ever come of such a place. They swore that the wind, rather than blowing, made a sucking sound. It was a mean place in mean times with few memories that anyone wants to recall.

There was and still is one memory that stands out. the children. There were so many in frayed utility caps, white shins and blue shorts, barefooted along the roads, smiling, waving, begging. In Vietnam there was once a 90 percent literacy rate, but not in I Corps, not in Leather-neck Square, at least not that anyone could remember. But most Marines who were in Vietnam remember when Lt Puller lost his legs and pans of both hands in 1968. They remember because nearly all of them, since boot camp, worshipped his father, retired Marine Lieutenant General Lewis B. "Chesty" lullen who with five Navy Crosses was the legend they'd all wanted to emulate. That was until they went to Vietnam and found out firsthandd how truly difficult Chesty' deeds must have been. It also struck them that no one probably knew this more than Lt Puller, who paid a horrible price being Chesty's "Fonunate Son?' An Army Reserve medic who helped mat the younger Puller at the naval hospital in Philadelphia still ta!ks about how the "terribly wounded" Marine would "scream in agony from his wounds" as he counted down, off his bedside clock, the time to his next medication. He'd never march or even stand at attention again. His life would center around a wheelchair and the pain, followed by the inevitable bitterness which would never completely go away. As with many Maines who returned from Vietnarn, he drank 100 much, and when that mixed with painkillers, depression followed. But Puller was tough. He fought back and wrote his autobiography: "Fortunate Son:' It was gut-wenching, depressing and an inspirational catharsis of not only his Vietnam experience, but love for his father In short, it was a masterpiece for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1993 he made a "visit of reconciliation" to Vietnam. On the surface, NIIcr's years of bitterness were seemingly coming to an end. He was quoted as saymg that he turned to "fighting the ba'~ttle of reconciliation that...I now see to be universal with men who have been in war]' It was then that he, too, remembered the children of Vietnam and realized that poverty and illiteracy were still prevalent. According to fellow Vietnam veteran John wheeler, in a 1991 interview with USA Today, "In 1993, [Puller] discovered that Vietnam's greatest challenge is to educate its children?.

Although the fighting was over, elementary education of. that nation's children apparently did not rank high on its government's list of priorities. "Many schools are in caves and thatched huts, and most are over 40 years old:' said Wheeler "With a population soaring past 70 million, the country is one of the world's poorest.... their literacy rate is in rapid decline. Even with foreign aid, Vietnam can meet barely 30 percent of its need for new classrooms. "Lew flew to Vietnam and won the trust of the government. He arranged to build schools in the poorest. areas, with the prototype in Dong Ha." Puller co-founded the Vietnamese Memorial Association; Wheeler became president. It was for the children, but it was also for those who died in the Vietnam War. In May 1994, Puller made himself a belated death of that war when he committed suicide. The idea of educating the Vietnamese children, however, had taken hold, and the work continued.

"When Lew died, letters and checks for the school project poured in, continued Wheeler. Wheeler said the Army medic who treated Puller sent a donation. A woman in a nursing home sent $10 a month. The literature class at Carl Sandburg High School, Orland Park, Ill., and others from around the world donated. "An Italian woman sent $500, writing, 'I think it takes sometimes more courage to live than to die: Puller's struggle during all these years to overcome his physical disabilities is an example of how personal tragedy can be convened into a positive force.' "Wheeler cited other donors including former war protesters. The donations topped the $71,000 needed to build a two-story, 12-classroom grade school to educate 535 students in Dong Ha. But that's not all, according to former Department of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary Edward Timperlake, himself a former Marine. There are plans to raise money over the next five years for 39 schools which will be built for albout $50,000 each.

But it was at Dong Ha in a comer of old leatherneck Square straddling the old DMZ that the school was dedicated April 24, 1995 (also marking the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War), and named in memory of Lewis B. Puller Jr. Terry Anderson, who was Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut when taken hostage and held captive for seven years, was on hand. Anderson was, in 1969, a Marine sergeant and combat correspondent in Vietnam, who befriended Puller in the last years of his life. "It was his dream to do this school:' Anderson told reporters, as they unveiled a plaque honoring Puller "I have not done anything in years that has given me as much personal satisfaction."

There's a school where children bedecked in red, white and blue uniforms danced for their American guests and gave them flowers. There's a school in that mean country where Lewis Puller Jr. lost his legs and, ultimately, his life.

Editor's note; Those who wish to donate or further inquire into the non-profit group should write: Vietnam Children's Fund, P0. Box 1015, Yonkers, NY 10704.

click on the small photos to see a larger version

Marine-Vietnam veteran and former AP bureau chief Terry Anderson was on hand to unveil a plaque honoring Puller at the school's dedication in April 1995.

Lewis Puller Jr..(center) followed in his father's loot-steps. Retired LtGen Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller witnessed his son's swearing-In ceremony In 1967.

This school in Dong Ha, Vietnam is the first of 40 schools planned to be built over the next five years. The project was Lewis Puller Jr's idea after he made a return "visit of reconciliation" in 1993.

In later years, Puller kept close ties with the Marine Corps that played such a key role In his and his family's lives. Here, he talked, in the late 1980s, with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray