Letters from home, from the family, or from one’s girlfriend were like treasures to us.
At Khe Sanh, during the siege in 1968, resupply of ammo, equipment, food, and water took priority over mail deliveries. The result was that we got it irregularly and not often.
Being surrounded by 40,000 NVA meant that my Recon company’s job was moot, so we were often put to work doing lots of mindless things, just to keep our minds occupied and off of the dire situation we were in. We had a lot of down time too, and one of the things many of us would do during that time was write letters, even though we knew they were not going outbound any better than they were coming inbound.
Several years after my return from Vietnam, my father surprised me with a box full of the letters I had written home during my thirteen month tour there. Those that were sent from Khe Sanh were smeared with the red dust of that place. We were never able to be very clean, we had no showers, and we were living in bunkers we had dug into that red earth and covered our bunkers over with every kind of material we could think of, including the dirt we had removed to make the bunkers.
With the amount of artillery, rocket and mortar fire that was coming in on us every day, most of us thought of those bunkers more often as potential graves than as our safe havens. But they were our homes for those 77 days. That is where we would write most of our letters home, in the dim light of a single light bulb, or maybe some candles.
Each page of those letters I sent home were marked by that red earth on my fingertips.
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I can’t tell you how much my father’s gesture, his keeping of those letters and returning them to me, meant. To this day, every now and then, I open a handful of them and read them again. They reveal my utter youth, my idealism, my attempts to reduce their fears at home, yet how those attempts also revealed mine.
Reading them brings me back to the me of that time, in that place. I can watch my growing awareness of the reality of war when I read them chronologically, which is how my dad had kept them. He had numbered each one to keep them in order.
They represent a real, living, breathing journal of my time in Vietnam.
Some of them bring tears to my eyes. Some of them are embarrassing for their utter innocence and idealism. But they let me see who I was then and they make the memories more concentrated and, ironically, more innocent. My father’s wisdom in keeping them and returning them to me were one of his greatest gifts to me.
They help me remember him, now that he is gone too.
There is something very intimate and tangible in a handwritten letter received by what is now euphemistically called, “snail mail.” When you received one, you knew that the person who had sent it to you had held and touched that same piece of paper and spent several concentrated minutes thinking about you and sharing what was going on with them. Sometimes the letters from girlfriends would literally be “sealed with a kiss” as the traces of lipstick would be still present on the envelope.
Communication with our loved ones who are serving abroad, many of them still in harm’s way are vital for morale to both parties. It keeps the intimacy of relationships alive and palpable, in the hands. I can tell you that we used to carry letters around in our pockets in Vietnam reading them over and over again, even out in the field.
They kept us close to those who sent them to us.
We here at the Veterans Site send our warmest regards to those who are serving far from home, and to their families at home during this Christmas and Holiday season. We pray for your swift return home and at the same time thank you sincerely for the sacrifices you so willingly make on behalf of those of us back home and our freedoms.
Peace to all.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.