At the height of the Vietnam War, 50 years ago last week, Army Private First Class Garfield M. Langhorn of Riverhead, then 20 years old, threw himself on a grenade to save members of his platoon.
Monday afternoon, Congressman Lee Zeldin gathered Vietnam War veterans and elected and community leaders at the Riverhead Post Office to announce that he is introducing legislation that would create a special semipostal stamp in Private Langhorn’s honor to help veterans in need of homes.
A semipostal stamp is a stamp sold at a premium price, which covers the cost of postage and donates the excess money to a nationally recognized cause. The money raised through this stamp would go to the Supportive Services for Veteran Families, a Department of Defense program that offers assistance to very low-income veteran families who are in the process of transitioning to permanent housing.
Congressman Zeldin pointed out that Private Langhorn had died on Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual birthday, and that Dr. King would have been 90 years old on the 50th anniversary of Garfield Langhorn’s death. The ceremony was held on the national holiday honoring Dr. King’s birthday.
Both men, he said, devoted their lives to freedom, “confronting evil and darkness.”
Mr. Zeldin added that he had learned a great deal about Private Langhorn’s character from reading the tributes to him on the virtual Vietnam Memorial, including one from Dawn Speed:
“Garfield, I remember the day we learned you’d been killed. I was just 9 years old and you were engaged to my cousin who lived across the street. The profound mixture of grief and pride in your heroism was so palpable, even as the adults spoke in whispers around us (in those days children were shielded from the harsh realities of life). You were a young man of character, and the circumstances of your death will always serve to remind us what it means to be a person of honor.”
Private Langhorn was serving as a radio operator in Aero Rifle Platoon, C Troop, 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry, 1st Aviation Brigade in the U.S. Army on Jan. 15, 1969 when his platoon was sent to rescue the two-man crew of a Cobra helicopter shot down by the North Vietnamese near Plei Djereng in Pleiku Province. They found the crew dead, and were transporting their bodies to be returned home when they came under fire.
PFC Langhorn radioed for help and provided covering fire for his wounded comrades while waiting for support from a gunship, when an enemy hand grenade landed in front of him. He threw himself on the grenade, absorbing the blast that killed him, but saved the lives of his comrades.
He was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice.
Private Langhorn’s niece, Venetia Lewis, was born in 1968, but she never had a chance to meet her uncle.
“My grandmother Mary would tell stories about her son,” she said. “He was so loving and kind…. We need to continue to keep his legacy going.”
Private Langhorn’s sacrifice completely changed the life of Doris Eve of East Patchogue, whose late husband, Rodney, was one of the soldiers saved by his actions.
She enumerated the list of members of her family, including children and grandchildren, who owe their existence to the fact that her husband returned home from war thanks to Private Langhorn.
“We are forever thankful for his brave sacrifice,” she said. “We will continue to honor his legacy. He is a role model of great integrity who should never be forgotten.”
Riverhead has proven extremely proud of its local hero, renaming Maple Avenue and the Riverhead Post Office in his honor. Students at Pulaski Street School learn every year about Private Langhorn’s sacrifice, participating in an essay contest about the young soldier’s values.
Christopher Rodriguez was a winner of this year’s contest, and he read his essay to the crowd gathered in the post office Monday morning.
“Each day, all of us kids can be inspired to be like Private Langhorn,” he read. “If we see someone being left out or hurt or teased a little 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. Sometimes it will make you step into the middle of the situation. You can tell the bully to stop and ask the teased kid to play with you. You can help someone with their homework. You can invite someone who is being left out to sit next to you at lunch. These things can be very hard to do but we have to try. Sometimes you will see mean things happen but you won’t step in right away. You can always tell a teacher. Asking someone to help is not tattling. It is doing the right thing. It is being brave and kind.”
“Brave is not a feeling that you should wait for,” he added. “It is a decision. It is a decision that compassion, kindness and doing what you think is the right thing is more important than fear, than fitting in or following everyone else.”
Politicians in attendance seemed struck by Private Langhorn’s gaze in a portrait behind a glass display in the lobby of the post office — a kind and resolute look into the middle distance, as the soldier stood in his dress uniform beside an American flag. Many wondered at the thought process that could have gone through a 20-year-old man’s mind as he made the decision to throw himself on the grenade.
Riverhead Town Councilman Jim Wooten, a former police officer from a family of veterans, looked into the eyes of the portrait for a few moments before uttering a completely different musing.
“He didn’t think about it. He just did it,” he said. “We protect each other. We take care of one another. It’s what we do.”
“Christopher’s essay brought me to tears,” he added. “If we could all be like Garfield, my god, we wouldn’t have to go to war.