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Riverhead school keeps veteran's legacy alive

Pfc. Garfield Langhorn was 20 when he threw himself on a grenade in Vietnam, saving the lives of five fellow soldiers. Today, a Riverhead grade school honors the Medal of Honor recipient with an essay contest.  (Credit: Randee Daddona)

As the years slipped by, the Riverhead man who earned the nation’s highest military award was mostly forgotten on Long Island. There were no buildings named in his honor. No streets bore the name of Garfield Langhorn, who died in Vietnam. 

That began to change 14 years ago when Riverhead's Pulaski Street School, where Langhorn once attended, made a point of honoring his legacy. 

Langhorn was 20 in 1969, when he threw himself on an enemy grenade to protect fellow soldiers. A year later, President Richard Nixon awarded him the blue-ribboned Medal of Honor.

The residents of Riverhead say Langhorn's name may have faded from public memory had it not been for teachers at Pulaski Street, an elementary school that was Riverhead’s high school when Langhorn graduated in 1967.

“He saved five men’s lives jumping on that thing,” Rich Kitson, president of the Suffolk chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said at a ceremony last month as he sat next to Langhorn’s 94-year-old mother in the school auditorium. “So, we will never forget him.”

In 2004, the Pulaski school faculty members established an annual essay contest to encourage their sixth-graders to remember Langhorn. Last month, just weeks shy of Veterans Day — and 50 years after Langhorn left Riverhead on his way to Vietnam — scores of residents, veterans and a former congressman gathered in the auditorium to hear this year's essay winners laud Langhorn as a model for children like themselves.

“Brave is not a feeling that you should wait for,” said Christopher Rodriguez, one of the essay winners. “It is a decision that kindness and doing what you think is right is more important than fear . . .”

'By sacrificing himself'

On Jan. 15, 1969, Langhorn and several infantry soldiers attached to the Army’s 7th Squadron, 17th Air Cavalry  had rushed to the aid of a pair of American airmen, whose helicopter had clipped some trees west of Pleiku and tumbled into a ravine.

The rescue turned out to be futile — the airmen had perished before rescuers arrived. But an ambush injured several members of the search party as they carried out the dead in the dark. Langhorn was helping to protect the rescuers as a circle of North Vietnamese soldiers tightened around them.

Then, a grenade rolled toward the wounded, landing within a foot of Langhorn’s left side. What happened next was recounted in a citation read at the April 1970 White House ceremony honoring Langhorn.

“Choosing to protect these wounded, he unhesitatingly threw himself on the grenade, scooped it beneath his body and absorbed the blast,” the citation read. “By sacrificing himself, he saved the lives of his comrades.”

Langhorn had turned 20 four months earlier.

His baby sister, April, was still in her teens when soldiers came to Riverhead to deliver the news. Home alone, she saw the uniforms and knew immediately.

“I said, ‘Is he dead?” recalled his sister, whose married name is Armstead. “They said, ‘We can’t say anything until your parents get here. We’ll wait in the car.'  ”

East End transplant

The Langhorns moved to Riverhead in the 1950s. The family had scratched out a living growing tobacco on Virginia farmland some two dozen miles from where the Confederacy had collapsed at the Appomattox Courthouse less than 90 years earlier. 

A relative who had gone north told Langhorn’s father that a black man could do much better in the potato fields two hours east of New York City. So the family moved.

Garfield Langhorn did well in school. He excelled in math, and competed on Riverhead High's cross-country team. He took a job at a county data processing center and set his sights on saving enough to attend college full time.

Then, the draft notice came.

The drive to the airport was a solemn one, the family said. Langhorn's father drove. His sister, Yvonne, came along, as did Joan Brown-Smith, who he knew from Riverhead’s First Baptist Church and who had said "yes" to marriage.

Brown-Smith, who now lives outside Baltimore, was 16 when he asked for her hand. He had even gone to her mother and father for their approval. 

“He told my parents we were in love and wanted to get married,” said Brown-Smith. “I remember my mom saying, ‘Garfield, you must be kidding.’ But he said, ‘No, ma’am.’ He was serious.”

He wrote to her nearly every day.

"Sometimes I think this is a dream . . ." Langhorn wrote shortly after arriving in Vietnam in November 1968. “ . . . but it goes on and on like a merry-go-round . . . I'm lonesome and want to come home."

A mother's words

By the end of 1972, only a handful of U.S. troops remained in Vietnam. In January 1973, Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, putting a ceasefire in place. Many Americans applauded the end to fighting, which cost more than 58,000 American lives.

Returning soldiers became the face of the unpopular war. Anti-war protesters showed up at airports, carrying spitting and yelling "baby killers." In the decade after the fighting, the Vietnam veterans who had been villified received few public honors.         

But the way that the country saw service members changed after the 9/11 terror attacks, which led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some 2.8 million Americans — all volunteer — answered the call to serve.

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were seen as protectors. And as the public showered them with thanks and recognition, many Long Islanders began working to show their appreciation for Vietnam-era veterans and the war dead.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation naming a Riverhead post office after Langhorn. The following year, Riverhead renamed a street in Langhorn’s honor, in the neighborhood where he grew up.

“It was amazing it took so long for Riverhead to honor him, so it’s nice to hear all the accolades,” Brown-Smith said. “It’s nice that his memory lives on now. He was a hero.”

John Hale, 73, is a Langhorn cousin who attended the ceremony at the school. He had served in Pleiku two years before Langhorn and his cousin's death riddled him with guilt. 

“I was the older one and had gone to Vietnam first,” said Hale, who lives in Riverhead. “I didn’t know why his life had been taken before mine.”

These days, Langhorn's mother, Mary, spends much of her time with a daughter in Virginia. But most years, she makes the nearly 10-hour car trip back to Riverhead for the essay readings.

She did again this year, telling the Pulaski School audience she wanted the world to know what kind of a man her son had been. More than that, she wished he had come home.

“He never caused anyone any trouble. He helped little old ladies across the street,” she said, hands crossed atop the crook of her cane. "He was just a wonderful boy."

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