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William & Mary to honor late Marine Lewis Puller Jr.

Tom Mullon plays “Taps” during a funeral at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Bloomington, Minn, last Friday. Every weekday, 12 months a year, the men of the Fort Snelling Memorial Rifle Squad are out in force and in formation, paying tribute to veterans being laid to rest. (AP Photo/Dawn Villella)

A salute to veterans: Tom Mullon plays “Taps” during a funeral at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery (AP Photo/Dawn Villella)

(AP) — The College of William & Mary’s Law School is naming its veterans’ legal clinic after the late Marine officer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lewis B. Puller Jr.

The Williamsburg college plans to hold a Veterans Day ceremony today to dedicate the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic in memory of Puller, an advocate for veterans who received his undergraduate and law degrees at William & Mary.

Puller described his life, his wartime experiences and their aftermath in his 1991 autobiography “Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet,” which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. But ultimately, he couldn’t surmount his struggles with alcohol use and depression and committed suicide in 1994. He was 48.

Among those set to speak are U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, law students who work in the clinic, and several service members who have received help from the clinic since it opened last year. The center is among a number of clinics that law schools have started nationwide to assist veterans.

Naming the clinic in Puller’s memory honors “his service and sacrifice and create a legacy befitting the Puller family’s dedication to our country,” said Patricia Roberts, the law school’s director of clinical programs.

Puller was the son of Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the nation’s most highly decorated Marine. The younger Puller graduated from William & Mary in 1967 and entered the Vietnam War as a 2nd lieutenant the following year. That October, he stepped on a booby-trapped Howitzer round, which blew off both his legs and most of his fingers and left him in considerable pain throughout his life. Puller earned the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Vietnam Cross for Gallantry.

He earned his law degree from William & Mary in 1974, and four years later ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat in Virginia’s 1st District for the U.S. House of Representatives. He also worked for the Paralyzed Veterans of America and served as a U.S. Defense Department attorney from 1978 until 1994.

William & Mary’s Veterans Benefits Clinic offers law students experience assisting service members with disability compensation claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Directed by the clinic’s supervisors, law students interview clients, analyze medical records, communicate with health-care providers, and assist in securing disability compensation for service members.

The clinic’s managing attorneys, Stacey-Rae Simcox and Mark D. Matthews, are both former officers in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The effort also includes a partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Psychological Services and Development. VCU students and faculty work to provide veterans with psychological assessments, counseling and referrals.

Simcox noted that a clinic combining legal and psychological assistance is especially important now that the signature wounds of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are traumatic brain injuries. There also is a need to better identify service members’ post-traumatic stress disorders and help them through the disability-claims process, she said.

Noting the psychological and physical disabilities of many returning veterans, Leticia Flores, director of the VCU center, said: “We’re now more sophisticated in addressing those two things in concert and not in isolation.”

Members of Puller’s family are expected at the dedication, the college said. His widow, Linda “Toddy” Puller, is a state senator representing parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties.

“Fortunate Son” details Puller’s life as the son of a military hero, graphically describing his shattering war injuries and tracing his path to recovery. Its title borrowed from the Creedence Clearwater Revival song of the same name, the book served as an inspiration to veterans and civilians alike, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Puller, who never fully overcame his troubles, fatally shot himself on May 11, 1994. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Many consider his death a delayed casualty of the Vietnam War.

- By Zinie Chen Sampson

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