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50 years after a young Marine’s death in Vietnam, his best friend reconnects with his family

A bouquet of roses, left to remember the dead, adorns the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller/Released)
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Pfc. Larry Brashears died at 19. He was a quiet and happy boy who “accepted everything that came to him,” said his sister, Linda Slifer. Before he served with the Marines in the Vietnam War, Larry showed cattle at The Great Frederick Fair and lived with his parents at their farm on Water Street Road in Walkersville.

Sometimes, like any other teenager, Larry would get tired of his mother’s meals and register a complaint at the dinner table.

“I remember Mom would make vegetable soup and he would say, ‘That old stuff again?’” said his brother, Elmer Lewis. “I mean, he was just a normal kid. Like everybody else.”

Larry’s dream was to buy a Corvette when he got back from Vietnam. Not a Corvair, the car he owned before he left, but a sleeker, sportier model — the kind of car he could cruise the streets in. Sometimes, Slifer said, Larry talked about moving to California, or buying a motorcycle — the type of approachable dream that seemed heady and exhilarating to a teenage boy growing up on a small farm in Maryland.

Larry died at the side of his best friend, Pfc. Jim Puhl, another small-town 19-year-old, from Maumee, Ohio, who wanted to get out of Vietnam alive and buy a Chevrolet Malibu. On April 30, 1968, their unit — the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines — came under heavy fire from North Vietnamese troops less than 10 miles from the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.

The two men were part of a mortar team, Puhl said, and one of their last actions in Vietnam was to load the weapon with ammunition and return fire.

“I was the gunner, and I remember the last thing I said to Larry was, ‘Make sure the gun’s ready to go because we’re going to be shooting rounds off very shortly,’” Puhl said. “And that’s all I remember. I found out Larry died two weeks later, in Stars and Stripes magazine, where they listed the casualties.”

Months later, Larry’s parents visited Puhl at Walter Reed Medical Center, where he was recuperating from gunshot wounds to his head and shoulders. Puhl didn’t remember much about the meeting, and neither did Larry’s mother — Lewis said she was reluctant to talk about her son’s death until the final years of her life.

Lewis, on the other hand, spent years wondering about the Marines who served with his brother — especially the young man his parents visited in the hospital. Lewis said his parents never told him about the visit and he didn’t press them on it; talking about Larry made his mother too upset. But shortly before her death in 2016, he said, she handed him an envelope of letters and photographs Larry had sent during his time in Vietnam.

Lewis had already tracked down several Marines who served in the same battle as his brother. But after his mother gave him the photos, he wrote to the Marine Corps and requested three months of duty rosters from Larry’s time in Vietnam.

The records helped him track down one retired Marine, Ron Worby, who served in the same platoon as his brother and could name some of the other men in Lewis’ pictures. Worby told Lewis that Puhl was Larry’s best friend in the platoon and gave him a phone number in Michigan.

“After I got my nerve worked up, I called Jim and he called me back,” Lewis said. “And everything kind of snowballed from there. We corresponded back and forth, and then Jim gave me a Christmas present this year — he said he was coming to visit.”

On April 30 — 50 years after Larry’s death in Vietnam — Puhl accompanied Lewis and Slifer to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick to visit his friend’s grave for the first time. Decades had dulled the guilt Puhl carried for years after Larry’s death, but the visit gave him a profound sense of loss — a clearer look at the life and family Larry left behind.

Vietnam, Puhl said, forced young American troops to grow up fast in a strange and hostile country. But while the specter of death lurked behind their shoulders, the men in his platoon rarely talked about danger. The only way to survive the present was to look ahead.

“We did not talk about death,” Puhl said. “We knew what the reality was, but if you sit and dwell on that reality while you’re there, you wouldn’t have made it. We talked about getting married and having kids. What kinds of jobs we may go into. Anything to make it seem like there was life going on after this.”

In Vietnam, Larry always wore the brim of his cap pushed upward, like the smiling upper bill of a duck. He would stockpile the Coca-Colas rationed out to Marines and drink them at the most inopportune times and places.

Once, Puhl said, Larry tied a rope to a sandbag filled with Cokes and pushed the sack into a stream near where he and Puhl were standing guard. When the sodas got cold, he pulled the bag out of the water, through the barbed wire, and guzzled the bottles while in the foxhole.

“Which was totally against regulation,” Puhl said. “But that’s just how he was. He would find some way to take the most difficult situation and find something we could just start laughing about.”

Even Lewis, nine years older, learned more about what Larry left behind in the years after his death. His brother never brought a girlfriend home to meet the family, he said. But after Larry’s funeral, a young woman who wrote to him in Vietnam called his mother and asked to speak with her.

Lewis remembered that his mother turned her down. But in 2013, he located the guest book from his brother’s burial and tracked down the woman — no small feat, given that she had married and changed her last name three times since Larry’s death.

Lewis wrote her a short letter and received a three-page response. The woman, Karen Palmer, said she met Larry in the weeks after he returned from basic training, before he was sent to Vietnam. Palmer’s mother was strict about dating, but Larry would drive by her house and honk the horn of his Corvair until she turned around and waved.

Once he got her attention, he would find a pay phone and call Palmer at the house. The two would talk and talk, she said, before her mother made her hang up the phone.

In letters to Lewis, Larry would complain if Palmer took too long to write back to him. He sent her a tapestry from a visit to Mexico and a pink parachute he made for her in Vietnam. He carried Palmer’s high school photo in the band of his helmet. He was young and smitten. He was 19.

When Puhl returned home to Ohio from Walter Reed, his father told him he looked like a 40-year-old man. He worked for 42 years as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service and got married and moved to Temperance, Michigan, where he later retired and became a minister.

Every year, on Veterans Day, Puhl visits Monroe Road Elementary School in Temperance and teaches the students about the Vietnam War. He brings photos of Larry and tells them to remember him. At the end of his talk, he reminds them of the pictures and tells them that the boy in the duckbill hat is dead, that he died six months after he went to Vietnam.

“I always say that Larry is teaching this generation that, ‘Yes, if we’re going to send our young people off to war, there is a price to pay,’” Puhl said. “And he is one of the greatest teachers I have.”

Every day, Puhl still asks Larry whether he’s doing good work in the life that he — by God’s grace or good fortune — was able to keep. Someday, he knows, they’ll meet again over a Coke or a beer and pick up exactly where they left off.

“I still keep in contact with him,” Puhl said. “And I know I always will.”

Follow Kate Masters on Twitter: @kamamasters.

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© 2018 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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