When they finally found the mangled ruins of the helicopter, scattered deep in enemy territory in the Vietnam jungle, everyone inside was already dead.
It was 1969, and Garfield Langhorn was very far away from home. Only 20 years old, he had just proposed to his girlfriend, Joan, and recently landed a job as a computer processor at the county center.
But that all came to a screeching halt when, just a year after graduating from Riverhead High School, he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.
The helicopter crew had perished in the crash, so the soldiers who had been sent to rescue them began recovering their bodies instead. Night was beginning to fall as Langhorn and his unit began transporting the bodies to a pickup site, where they would be sent home to their grieving families.
Hacking through the thick, tangled brush of the jungle under a rapidly darkening sky, they did not see the Vietnamese troops moving just out of sight, invisible in their camouflaged bunkers.
By the time the enemy troops began firing, it was too late. Langhorn and his fellow soldiers were surrounded.
Heavy gunfire began to rain down upon the American soldiers, injuring several and forcing them into a tight perimeter to protect the wounded. Langhorn radioed for help, but with the sky growing darker, the American gunships flying overhead could not aim well enough to join the fight.
Langhorn was providing cover fire for several wounded soldiers when the grenade arced through the air and landed in front of him.
He did not think twice.
Without hesitation, Langhorn threw himself atop it moments before it exploded, absorbing the blast with his body and saving the lives of all those nearby.
Almost half a century later, Langhorn, is still a local hero. He is one of only three people on Long Island to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service during the Vietnam War. A statue in his likeness was erected at Riverhead Town Hall, the Riverhead Post Office was renamed in his honor, the downtown Riverhead street where he grew up was named for him and Pulaski Street School, which was still the Riverhead High School when Langhorn graduated in 1967, has renamed its library for him.
And every year, Pulaski Street sixth-graders learn about Langhorn’s sacrifice and participate in an essay contest about how he has inspired them.
This year’s winners read their essays to an audience that included Langhorn’s mother and two sisters, who travel from Virginia every year to meet the essay winners.
“It’s incredible to see that his memory still goes on, the sacrifice that he made,” said Anna Mack, Langhorn’s sister, who was 16 years old when her brother died in action.
From helping elderly neighbors with shoveling snow-covered driveways to volunteering at local food pantries, the four essay contest winners all spoke about ways Langhorn inspires them to become better people.
“Although I may not do something as brave as Garfield, even the little things will make a big difference in someone’s life,” said Olivia Goodale, one of the sixth grade essay winners.
Her twin Alexandra, who was also chosen as an essay winner, agreed. “I really wish I could have met Garfield,” she wrote.
One essay winner spoke about his 93-year-old great-grandmother, who suffers from dementia. “I have to constantly remind her who I am and who I belong to,” said Dominic Geraci. “It is very sad to see her like this. I try to help out with her as much as possible.”
Langhorn’s mother, Mary, sat on stage beside a large projection screen that displayed photos of her late son as the sixth graders read their essays aloud.
After the ceremony, Mrs. Langhorn was visibly touched. “As long as Pulaski School is here, they could be doing this every year,” she said. “And that’s amazing. Because it tells generation after generation about what happened.”
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