Fifty years after a young soldier from Riverhead smothered a live grenade with his body to save the lives of injured soldiers in a Vietnamese jungle, veterans of that war, family members of the young hero, and the descendants of one of the men he saved gathered today in the post office named in his memory to pay homage to his life and legacy.
Selfless… heroic… patriotic…brave… These words were repeatedly used during ceremonies today to describe the young man’s actions on Jan. 15, 1969. PFC Garfield M. Langhorn Jr. was all of those things.
The 20-year-old Army radio operator’s unit — an infantry platoon known as the Blues — was on a mission to save the crew of a helicopter that crashed in the jungle. They recovered the bodies of the two men, but as night fell, they were ambushed by the Viet Cong and sustained heavy casualties. A grenade landed on the jungle floor, a few feet from where Langhorn lay returning enemy fire. Seemingly without hesitation or thought for his own welfare, according to men who were there, Langhorn jumped on the grenade, absorbing its blast with his body. See prior story.
But Langhorn was even more than that. He was a son, a brother, an uncle, a cousin, a fiance, a comrade, a friend.
“To hear about his heroic actions made us all very proud — that we had an uncle who died as a hero,” said Venetia Lewis, Langhorn’s niece. She was born a year before her uncle died and never knew him.
“You had to wonder what was going through his head at that moment,” she pondered, speaking to the crowd in the post office lobby. His actions reflected what his parents instilled in him, Lewis said. “What he did in the war was just an example of who he was.”
The Langhorn family has had to live with the loss and still feels the pain. The death of the only son of Garfield Sr. and Mary Langhorn meant his three sisters’ children “never had an opportunity to have an uncle,” Lewis said. “His sisters never had their brother after the age of 20. My grandmother didn’t have an opportunity to see her son have children.”
One family’s loss meant other families could thrive.
Doris Eve, whose husband Rodney, was among the soldiers saved by Langhorn’s sacrifice was at the ceremony today with two of her children and four of her eight grandchildren.
“My husband’s life and many others lives were saved by this truly heroic soldier. I am forever thankful for his brave sacrifice. Garfield allowed Rodney to become the admirable son, husband, brother, father and public servant he was destined to become,” Eve said.
“Garfield has always been a presence in our family life. Our three children were always aware of his self-sacrifice and now the lessons have continued with our eight grandchildren,” Eve said — including the youngest boy who carries his name: Benjamin Rodney Garfield Eve. Her family will continue to honor Garfield’s legacy, she said.
Honoring his legacy motivates people like Clarence Simpson of Vietnam Veterans of America and others members of the organization to power-wash Langhorn’s headstone in Riverhead Cemetery once a year and polish the brass bust of the fallen soldier that stands outside Riverhead Town Hall.
His legacy also inspires students at Pulaski Street School, where each fall the life and legacy of Riverhead’s Medal of Honor recipient is the subject of an essay contest conceived by a former teacher there, Mary Ann Harroun. This year’s contest winner, Christopher Rodriguez, read his essay to the crowd at the post office:
“Many people think that our lives, freedom and happiness are our rights as Americans. They are not rights but gifts that people like Private Langhorn have given us.
“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 peple 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 think is 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.”
Today’s event was organized by Rep. Lee Zeldin, who presented Lewis with a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in Langhorn’s memory. He also presented her with a copy of a bill he’s introduced in Congress to authorize a semi-postal fundraising stamp memorializing Langhorn which, if approved, will raise money for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, which assists low-income veteran families who are in the process of transitioning to permanent housing.
Zeldin also spoke about Langhorn on the floor of the House of Representatives Tuesday to mark the 50th anniversary of his line-of-duty death.
The ceremony today was attended by a large contingent of “green jackets” — members of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Suffolk County American Legion Commander Michael Pankowski and many other veterans, by State Senator Ken LaValle, Assembly Member Anthony Palumbo, Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy, County Legislator Al Krupski, County Legislator Leslie Kennedy, Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and Councilman James Wooten.
Langhorn’s niece was overcome with emotion. “I am so happy that this has taken place,” Lewis said after the ceremony concluded. “I believe that every year we should recognize him — to keep his legacy going so people do understand we have a hero here,” she said.
“He gave the ultimate sacrifice so we could all have freedom,” she said. “But to hear people say, ‘we are here today because of him’ well —” she paused, searching for words to describe what that meant. “We are so honored that he is part of us, part of our family, part of this community and we will always work to keep his legacy alive.”