The Pulaski Street School auditorium was filled to capacity Friday morning but the audience of excited sixth-graders fell silent as ceremonies got underway to commemorate the life and death of Garfield M. Langhorn Jr.
Langhorn, who would have turned 70 last month, was killed in action in Vietnam on Jan. 15, 1969. His selfless act of heroism in throwing himself on a live grenade to save the lives of wounded comrades in a Vietnamese jungle led to the posthumous award of the Congressional Medal of Honor in April 1970, the nation’s highest military honor.
His memory is honored each year with an essay contest by the sixth grade students of the Pulaski Street School, the building that housed Riverhead High School in 1967 when Langhorn was awarded his diploma and left to make his way in the world. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam.
On Jan. 15, 1969, his company — Troop Troop C, of the 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry, 1st Aviation Brigade — went on a mission to rescue two pilots of a Cobra helicopter shot down by enemy fire on a heavily timbered slope, according to Langhorn’s Medal of Honor citation.
A radio operator, Langhorn, 20, “provided radio coordination with the command-and-control aircraft overhead while the troops hacked their way through dense undergrowth to the wreckage, where both aviators were found dead.
“As the men were taking the bodies to a pickup site, they suddenly came under intense fire from North Vietnamese soldiers in camouflaged bunkers to the front and right flank, and within minutes they were surrounded.
“Pfc. Langhorn immediately radioed for help from the orbiting gunships, which began to place mini-gun and rocket fire on the aggressors. He then lay between the platoon leader and another man, operating the radio and providing covering fire for the wounded who had been moved to the center of the small perimeter.
“Darkness soon fell, making it impossible for the gunships to give accurate support, and the aggressors began to probe the perimeter.
“An enemy hand grenade landed in front of Pfc. Langhorn and a few feet from personnel who had become casualties.
“Choosing to protect these wounded, he unhesitatingly threw himself on the grenade, scooped it beneath his body and absorbed the blast. By sacrificing himself, he saved the lives of his comrades.”
Langhorn is only one of three men from Long Island who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service during the Vietnam War and Riverhead Town’s only Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.
How can ordinary people emulate Langhorn’s extraordinary valor in their everyday lives? That is the question posed to sixth-grade essay-writers at Pulaski Street.
Winners Christopher Rodriguez, Dean Redmond and Zuleika Herrera Rodriguez and honorable mention Brooke Andresen each read their essays aloud to the packed auditorium.
“Many people think that our lives, freedom and happiness are our rights as Americans,” Christopher wrote. “They are not rights but gifts that people like Private Langhorn have given us,” he wrote.
“We can all be inspired to be like Private Langhorn. If we see someone being left out or teased, a part of us will feel that this is wrong. Like Private Langhorn we need to act on that feeling. It is called compassion and is a sign for us to do something… You can stand up for people who can’t… Brave is not a feeling that you should wait for. It is a decision. It is a decision that kindness and doing what you thin its the right thing is more important than fear, than fitting in or following everyone else. Private Langhorn inspires us to be grateful, kind and brave,” Christopher wrote.
Dean observed that Langhorn “must have felt scared to be in a country that he didn’t know and to fight with people he never met. War is scary and he must have been scared that he might die.” He expressed compassion for the soldier’s parents, sisters and girlfriend who had to cope with his loss.
Zuleika offered ways “kids like me” can help the community: by donating hair for wigs for cancer patients, by helping a neighbor with groceries or walking their dog, by reaching out to the elderly to make them feel less lonely.
“A way I helped my community with my family was by sending a huge box full of clothes, medicine, nooks toys and personal necessities for our families in Guatemala” after a volcanic eruption there in June.
“By these deeds, it shows that normal people like me don’t have to wear capes to help others.”
Brooke wrote that kids could stand up to bullies. “You could even tell the bully about Garfield Langhorn and how everyone should be inspired by him,” she said. Langhorn’s bravery was a gift to the other soldiers.
“What everyone should remember throughout their lives is that every day is a gift; be thankful for the people in your life. Think of others before yourself.”
Over the 14 years since the inception of the essay contest, the number of students participating has more than quadrupled, Pulaski Street School principal David Densieski said yesterday.
“The quality of the essays and the insights were better than ever,” Densieski said. The eight-person panel of judges had a difficult task selecting three winners and an honorable mention.
Robert “Bubbie” Brown, one of the judges on hand for yesterday’s assembly, said they could have picked 15 winners this year because the essays were so good.
Former congressman Tim Bishop, who sponsored legislation to have the Riverhead post office named for Langhorn, told the students to think about Langhorn’s courage in the Vietnamese jungle that day. “Think about what kind of person does that. Think about how that person was raised. Think about the values that go into that kind of instantaneous judgment and then ask yourselves, ‘How can we learn from that?’ We should be grateful that this community produced a Garfield Langhorn, that this family produced a Garfield Langhorn,” Bishop said.
“Remember, the spirit of Garfield Langhorn is in this building. He sat in these chairs. He walked these halls and he sat in the classrooms here,” Bishop reminded them.
Bishop presented the school principal with a plaque holding the legislation naming the Riverhead post office for Langhorn, signed by President Barack Obama. The plaque will be displayed as part of the memorial to Langhorn in the school library, which was also named for Langhorn in 2011.
Langhorn’s mother Mary, now 94 years old, traveled from her home in Virginia — where she moved to be close to her daughters a few years ago — to attend the ceremonies, as she has done every year since 2005.
“I appreciate everything the Town of Riverhead and the school has done to keep Garfield’s memory alive,” she said. “The essays were wonderful.”
The Riverhead High School NJROTC participated by presenting the colors. Trumpeter Colin Van Tuyl of Greenport performed the National Anthem and Taps. Members of the L.I. Chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America attended the ceremonies, as did the Patriot Guard Riders, the essay contest judges and members of the Garfield Langhorn Memorial Committee, which sponsors the essay contest. The contest winners each got a $50 gift card to acknowledge their achievement.
Trevor Hewitt, who along Mary Ann Harroun, Debbie Brown and Clarence Simpson, coordinated the contest and assembly ceremonies, read Langhorn’s biography to the assembly and then urged all in attendance to find ways to emulate the fallen hero’s character.
“Let us all find the courage to right a wrong, to speak for the voiceless, to protect the defenseless. Let us each remember to honor our personal responsibilities and commitments and to offer service to our country, our communities and our families,” Hewitt said.
“Twenty-year-old Garfield Langhorn gave his life to protect and preserve the lives of others. His unselfish act made him a hero. Let us all honor the life of PFC Garfield M. Langhorn by finding the hero within each of us.”
Correction: Zuleika Herrera Rodriguez’s first name was misspelled in this article when first published.