On that January night in 1969, Mary Langhorn did not know she would soon become the only woman in Suffolk County history whose son was granted the Medal of Honor for valor during the Vietnam War.
All she knew then was that the pair of soldiers at her door were telling her that her only son, Garfield, was dead.
For most of the next half century, the Virginia-born Riverhead resident carried her son’s memory — adorning her living room wall with the blue-ribbon Medal of Honor given to her family by President Richard Nixon at a 1970 White House ceremony.
Now she is gone, too.
Langhorn, who liked church and elaborate hats, died May 4 at Memorial Regional Hospital in Mechanicsville, Virginia. Two weeks shy of her 95th birthday, she succumbed to complications from a fall.
“I'd rather he had come back,” she told Newsday in October. “But he didn't, so I'm proud he got that medal, and people haven’t forgotten him.”
She joined the ranks of Gold Star Mothers on Jan. 15, 1969, when her son, 20, sacrificed his life so that the rest of his platoon mates would survive.
His platoon had rushed to the site of a helicopter crash in Pleiku province when they found themselves in a tightening circle of enemy fighters. When a grenade hurled from the nighttime darkness landed close to where Garfield Langhorn was protecting injured members of his platoon, the Riverhead High graduate scooped the deadly instrument to his belly, absorbing its blast.
“Pfc. Langhorn's extraordinary heroism at the cost of his life was in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit on himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army,” read the Medal of Honor citation the Langhorn family received at the White House.
But with the nation bitterly divided over U.S. intervention in Vietnam, her son’s valor was swallowed in the societal tumult and went mostly forgotten here on Long Island.
Nearly a quarter century passed before pressure from Riverhead’s black community persuaded town officials to recognize him.
In 1993, Riverhead Town officials erected a bronze bust depicting the young soldier wearing the star-shaped Medal of Honor pendant. A Riverhead post office was named for him in 2010. And since faculty at Riverhead's Pulaski Street School began hosting commemorative activities in his memory in 2004, Mary Langhorn had frequently made the more than 8-hour trip to attend, as she did in October.
Clarence Simpson, a vice president of the Suffolk chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, said her determination to keep the memory of her son alive is appreciated by veterans who served in the war.
"She is a special lady," he said.
Mary Langhorn was born in 1924 in Cumberland, Virginia, 40 miles away from where and 49 years after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Appomattox surrender ended the Civil War, but not the crushing exploitation that shaped the lives of many black Virginians. Her father died when she was a child; her mother supported the family by working as a midwife.
After beginning a family, she and her husband — also named Garfield Langhorn — left Virginia in the mid-1950s to find work in Riverhead. A daughter said Mary Langhorn found agricultural and domestic work near Riverhead before eventually signing on as a seamstress in a unionized garment factory, where she became a shop steward.
After her husband died in 2008, she moved back to Virginia in 2013, to be close to family.
Langhorn is survived by her remaining children: April Armstead, of Chesterfield, Virginia, Yvonne Reid, of Mechanicsville, Virginia and Ann Mack, of Powhatan, Virginia.
Her funeral is 1 p.m. Friday in Mount Pero Baptist Church, Powhatan, Virginia.
There will be a visitation 12:30 to 2 p.m. Tuesday, at Tuthill-Mangano Funeral Home in Riverhead. She will be buried in Riverhead Cemetery, in a family plot where her son and husband now rest.
Reid said her mother initially was consumed by grief over her son’s death.
“She cried that night,” Reid said of her mother’s reaction to the soldiers at the door, adding that her mother eventually found consolation in the details of his bravery.
“Initially, she was hurt and was bothered by it for a long time, because it was more than a year later before we found out what really happened and how he died,” Reid said.
“But once we went to the White House, and they presented the Medal of Honor to our family, mostly to my Dad, she took on a different persona, Reid said. "One of tremendous pride.”