After the explosion, the next thing Army Staff Sgt. Herbert Edwin “Ed” Larson remembered was a cascade of feathers falling as if from on high.
“He saw all these feathers coming down around him and he thought he was in heaven,” his older brother, David Larson, would later say.
But Ed Larson was still in the hell that was Vietnam at the height of the war, and the feathers were from a pillow he had been sitting on when an enemy rocket bore through the 4-inch steel of the M113 armored personnel carrier he was manning on Aug. 18, 1968.
The blast killed everybody else in the vehicle. Ed Larson survived despite losing his right arm and his right leg, as well as being riddled with shrapnel. He was 24 years old and he had an 8-month-old son. He was medevaced to a field hospital.
“I remember my parents getting the telegram indicating he had suffered traumatic injuries and wasn’t expected to make it,” David recalled.
Ed survived and was transferred to a facility in Japan and then back to the States. He was beginning an extended stay at Valley Forge Army Hospital three months after he was wounded when his family was finally able to see him.
“I hardly recognized him,” David would recall. “He had lost so much weight. It must have been under a hundred pounds, minus the leg and the arm.”
Ed began nearly a half-century of seemingly endless surgeries and seemingly endless complications. His continuing pain, the nerve pain in particular, was such that he would sometimes cry out, even with the medication.
“I remember him hollering,” David said. “For some of the wounded, it never ends.”
Yet Ed remained Ed at his core, even as surgeons were forced to whittle his stumps down to the hip and to the socket.
“My brother did pretty well considering all the pain he went through,” David said.
Ed was still winningly outgoing, and he retained the same adventurous spirit that he had shown as a toddler by repeatedly climbing out of his crib and making his way down from the second floor of the family’s Connecticut home. He would then set off to explore the world beyond.
“He was a little kid, not even 3,” David would recall. “He would sometimes get out of the house and people would have to go look for him.”
The parents, Herbert Sigurd Larson and Harriet Allard Larson, tried stretching a cloth cover over the crib.
“One day he managed to get out of that,” David recalled. “I don’t know how he did it. Before you knew it, he came down the stairs.”
David added, “Very strong-headed… He was a free spirit. Let’s put it that way.”
Ed entered his teens determined to become a soldier. He dropped out of high school and persuaded his parents to sign the necessary papers for him to enlist at 17. He served in South Korea and in Germany, and he was happily ready to spend his life in uniform, serving his country.
“He loved it,” David remembered. “He was going to make a career of it.”
As a member of G Troop, 2nd Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry—the legendary Blackhorse Regiment—Ed was deployed to Vietnam in April 1968, three months after the birth of his son, Michael Larson. He had been there four months when he suffered what his family would later term “life-altering wounds.”
His soldiering days were over and he went back to school, earning a degree in biblical studies at Liberty University, as befitted a man whose life was a pendulum between heaven and hell.
“He had a good life, even though there was never too much time before something would go wrong,” David said. “There was never a year or even two months went by without him having to be hospitalized.”
Ed was fitted with a rudimentary prosthetic arm for a time but stopped using it after it became caught in his car’s steering wheel and caused an accident. He managed to drive one-handed and got about as intrepid as ever.
“He always did his own thing,” David said.
Ed was an active member of an association of others who had served in the Blackhorse Regiment. He affirmed his pride in his Army service when he named his new Besenji dog.
“MacArthur,” David reported. “My brother named him MacArthur.”
On Sept. 4, 2016, Ed was in yet another hospital, this time Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. His spirit was still undimmed, but his heart failed him after enduring so many trials. He was 73.
Ed had of course asked to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The funeral was set for 11 a.m. on Jan. 19 of the new year. That happened to be the day the then-president-elect, Donald Trump, was to follow tradition by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier there.
When the funeral procession for Larson arrived at the front gate, the immediate family members were asked to step out of the limousine for a vehicle security check. The other mourners in the group were patted down.
In the chapel, a chaplain delivered a eulogy based on the simple essentials of Ed’s obituary, which the facts of his life made unadornedly elegant. The dates of his Army service. The severity of his wounds. His Bronze Star and his Purple Heart. His subsequent university degree in Bible studies. All of it attested to duty and devotion and strength.
“It was very nice,” David later said.
Then the procession followed the hearse bearing the flag-covered coffin past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where Trump would lay the wreath later in the day. It continued on toward Patton Drive, named for Gen. George Patton, whose son, Col. George Patton Jr., commanded the Blackhorse Regiment during Ed’s time in Vietnam.
In Section 8A, the chaplain led the way to newly dug Grave 33. There was a rifle volley in salute, and a bugler played “Taps.” The honor guard lifted the flag from the coffin and folded it with solemn precision 13 times into a triangle where only the white stars on their blue background were visible.
The officer in charge then took the flag in two white-gloved hands and knelt before the Ed’s widow, Dr. Marjorie Warnick Larson. He presented it with the flat edge facing her and intoned the prescribed words for this moment:
“On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
As this was a day before the inauguration, the president was still Barack Obama. But the words would have been exactly the same had Donald Trump already taken the oath.
In the days since the election, many of us have had to remind ourselves that we owe the office of the presidency due respect no matter who occupies it. The officer in charge’s stirring recitation as he presented the flag reaffirmed that obligation. It further served as a reminder that the president must also respect the office and the basic principles that govern even him, most particularly him.
When the time came for a final farewell, the widow kissed the coffin. David gave more of an older brother’s farewell.
“I just put a hand on it and thumped it a few times,” he later reported.
All the mourners took comfort in the thought that Ed’s suffering had finally ended.
“We now know he’s free of pain,” David later said. “My sister-in-law wanted to add that to the grave marker, but it’s too many words, so they wouldn’t.”
The mourners departed just after noon, as the cemetery was preparing for the imminent arrival of the man who would be commencing the first of the traditional rituals before becoming the new president.
Ed’s obituary leaves us with a request we all can honor.
“In lieu of flowers, Ed asked that everyone visit a wounded soldier,” it said.