When military personnel are away from their family for extended periods of time, the most treasured gift they can receive is mail – a letter from home. Regardless of race, sex or rank, correspondence from “The World” is an escape, allowing individuals an opportunity to temporarily remove themselves from their current environments and enter into a dimension that is humane, friendly and warm – personal and alone – one with the sender.
Home is where the heart is and keeping up with the “goings on” of family, town and events back home is paramount. The process, however, is a two-way street, each letter having updates, questions and responses. Protocol requires one to send in order to receive. The more a soldier sends – the more received…at least in theory.
One thing I remember about my days as a grunt in Vietnam is that the required time to write a letter was often difficult to come by; usually, after getting set up for the nightly defensive perimeter, one is able to squeeze in a few minutes before it was too dark in the jungle. When patrolling in larger platoon-sized operations, soldiers found time during daylong lagers when squads took turns going out on reconnoitering patrols. Re-supply occurred every 3 – 5 days; all four platoons gathered together and spread out over a couple acres of land – adjacent to a small clearing large enough to land a Huey helicopter.
Except for those soldiers assigned to listening and observation posts outside of the perimeter, everyone else has a couple of hours of free time to do whatever they want.
When the bird arrives with supplies, the company clerk is usually the first to disembark – carrying a large, (Santa Claus) nylon or canvas bag over each shoulder; U.S. MAIL stenciled on the side in four-inch high block letters. This is the most important part of the re-supply when mail is both collected and distributed. We didn’t have to use stamps in Vietnam as long as we printed “FREE” where a stamp is normally placed. Some grunts didn’t even use envelopes, choosing instead to write a few words home on a piece of c-ration packaging. As long as it had an address and the word “FREE”, Uncle Sam made certain it was delivered.
When the clerk arrives at the platoon’s location on the perimeter with the mailbag, soldiers are quick to gather around in anticipation of hearing his name called. Some soldiers receive small goody packages and/or dozens of letters at the same time – those receiving “gifts” exhibit faces painted with wide grins, while all moving in different directions to find a private area of their own.
Others received nothing – their faces showing disappointment as they amble back to their locations.
Envelopes with a hint of perfume are eventually passed around so everyone can share in the wondrous fragrance, a momentary respite from the terrible smells endured daily. Soldiers cling desperately to wives and girlfriends, their letters, read and re-red dozens of times over the next few days. Some letters are saved, but most are burned or buried. Pictures and good news are shared openly with fellow squad members, each privy to one another’s personal life, dreams and fears. American soldiers fought hard and kept their heads down, in the hopes of seeing — the girl he left behind — again.
Receiving bad news from home didn’t travel quite as fast between fellow squad members. Recipients tend to keep that information private. However, signs of depression, anxiety and performing actions unbecoming soon attract the attention of your brothers – the beans eventually get spilled. The worst news of all is to receive a “Dear John letter”.
A “Dear John letter” is one in which a steady girlfriend, fiancé or wife tells a soldier that she wants to end their relationship, often because she has met another man. It happened to me! I gave my girl an engagement ring the day before I entered into the Army. We had been dating for a couple of years and I wanted to get married after completing my two-year service commitment. Once I arrived in Vietnam, the frequency, length and level of affection within her letters began to drop off and then stopped abruptly after three months in country. I thought something wasn’t quite right and was going to send a letter to her with a list of questions. However, before I could do that, I received a “Dear John letter” two weeks later. It read something like this:
“Hi. I know it’s been a while since I’ve last written; I did receive all of your letters…it’s just hard, you know? With you in Vietnam, it’s not like things back home have been easy or simple. All of our friends are protesting against the war and I’ve joined them in demonstrations where they tell me that what you’re doing is wrong. I don’t really know how to say this, so I’m just going to tell you like it is: I’ve met someone else. His name is Jody. I swear that I wasn’t looking for anything like this to happen…it just did and now we’re in love.
I’ll take the engagement ring over to your mother’s for safe –keeping – after all, you paid for it. I wish you well. Good bye!”
I was stunned. Devastated! My childhood notions of romance suddenly shattered! I felt helpless because she was so far away. I couldn’t call. I couldn’t visit for a face-to-face. It was a major distraction – one that might get me killed. Overnight, I developed an “I don’t give a shit attitude”, volunteered to walk point, joined spontaneous ambush teams and took all kinds of unnecessary risks. It didn’t take long for my fellow grunts to pick-up on the changes in my personality. After grilling me and finding the reason for my depression, out came the backyard preachers, marriage councilors, psychologists and just plain friends who wanted to support me in my time of need. To this day, I am thankful for their involvement and the support of my brothers in arms. Without them, I may have jumped off a cliff or done something else very stupid!
After about three weeks, I thought less and less about my former fiancé. Oddly, I began receiving letters and pictures from former classmates and girls in my neighborhood; news of my break-up must have spread quickly. Fellow squad members had also arranged for their sisters to send letters to me – trying to cheer me up. It was, a breath of fresh air. Invigorated by my new future, I quickly returned to my old self. My mother wrote in a letter telling me that there is somebody in the world for everyone, I only had to remain patient and she would find me. How do mother’s know so much?
During the early part of the Vietnam War, many couples got married in hopes that it would help the husband avoid the war, obviously it didn’t. Young couples also got married out of convenience prior to soldiers leaving for Vietnam – kind of like the last “hurrah” to have sex legally before heading off to war; I’m betting that many children were conceived during that last night at home.
I don’t know if there are any statistics available that tallied the amount of “Dear John letters” received by the 3.5 million soldiers that served in country during the Vietnam War. I personally know of a dozen fellow soldiers who were recipients of these dreadful announcements during my yearlong tour. Some of the letters were extremely bitter, angry and cold, others short and to the point. Nevertheless, we took care of one-another, providing a patient ear, a shoulder to cry on and the support to get over what was thought to be the love of our life.
Picture from Dave Berry’s collection
There were stories circulating in Vietnam about soldiers going off the deep end after receiving one of these letters…killing themselves easily with readily available weapons of choice…unable to live without her!
While the exact origins of “A Dear John letter” are unknown, it is commonly believed to have started during World War II. At that time, large numbers of American troops were stationed overseas for many months or years, and as time passed many of their wives or girlfriends decided to begin a relationship with a new man rather than wait for the original one to return.
I had heard that ministers and government officials were preaching to their followers during the war that women considering ending relationships should wait until their soldier returns home. Thereby, allowing him to better cope while surrounded by friends and family. I’m not certain that I agree with that philosophy and am going out on a limb here. My opinion is that the bond developed between soldiers in Vietnam was much stronger than family or friends could ever be, and thereby, much more supportive in a time of need. Too many of my peers returned home to broken hearts by women who feigned fidelity! Being home didn’t make it easier and the loss took much longer to overcome. In hindsight, it was foolish to expect a teenage girl to wait for a teenage boy who was in harms way – teen angst is a bitch!
Today, in this electronic age, communication is instantaneous via cell phones, texting, email, Skype and other means. It is much easier to keep in touch – even between time zones – news to and from home doesn’t take two weeks as it did in the 60’s. I’m curious about today’s soldiers. Are “Dear John letters” still received by troops overseas? How are they communicated? Do you feel it’s easier to cope in the war zone – supported by your brothers in arms or while at home with family? If you ever received a “Dear John letter” – how did you handle it?
My mother’s prophesy came true and shortly after my discharge from the service, I met my current wife, Janice – the love of my life for the last 40 + years.
In closing, I’ve attached four slides representing back and forth communications between a Marine and his girl announcing a break-up. Some soldiers are not fazed and have creative minds to retaliate. See below:
Looking forward to your responses.
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