Garfield M. Langhorn Jr. was born in tiny Cumberland, Va., in the rural center of the state, an hour’s drive west of Richmond, the state capital. He grew up in Riverhead, part of a community of African Americans with roots in the South who came north for a better life, away from the institutionalized segregation and rigid rules that separated blacks from whites.
As a private first class in the U.S. Army, Pfc. Langhorn was killed in Vietnam Jan. 15, 1969, while trying to save the lives of his brothers in arms. He was just 20 years old. He is buried in Riverhead.
If that is all you know about Pfc. Langhorn, you are doing him and his memory a disservice. This is because very few people in any community in any part of America will be remembered for doing something extraordinary. The great majority of people live out their lives unsung, remembered only by family members, if even that, and are forgotten. At best, they get a paid obituary in their local newspaper, and that’s it.
Pfc. Langhorn was a different sort of young man, one who will be remembered for generations. On that day 50 years ago, members of his Army unit put themselves in harm’s way in an attempt to reach the crew of a downed American helicopter. The unit came under heavy enemy fire, during which an enemy hand grenade landed among them. Pfc. Langhorn threw himself on the grenade, saving the others but losing his own life.
He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor — our country’s highest military honor. The citation that accompanied it refers to Pfc. Langhorn’s “conspicuous gallantry … beyond the call of duty… Choosing to protect the wounded, he unhesitatingly threw himself on the grenade, scooped it beneath his body and absorbed the blast. By sacrificing himself, he saved the lives of his comrades.”
You can see Pfc. Langhorn’s name on the hauntingly beautiful Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Panel 34W, line 9.
A very fine story on the RiverheadLocal website this week by Denise Civiletti quotes from an account given by 1st Lt. Charles Campbell: “Campbell was on the ground next to Langhorn when a grenade landed about a foot in front of them.
“ ‘Somebody’s got to care,’ Langhorn said before he lunged for the grenade. … Those were his last words.”
“Hero” is a word that applies perfectly to Pfc. Langhorn.
On Monday at noon at the Riverhead post office, which is named for Pfc. Langhorn, Congressman Lee Zeldin will present the flag flown over the Capitol building in Pfc. Langhorn’s memory. Members of the Langhorn family will be present.
Ms. Civiletti also quotes Pfc. Langhorn’s sister, Yvonne Reid: “I think it’s important for Riverhead to remember what he did, because he represents the town … Riverhead should feel proud to celebrate someone who was willing to give his life to save his comrades.”
Say amen, somebody.