In my study of the Vietnam War, I viewed the documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. I was also able to view the book. Of all the literature and art from the Vietnam War – all war, for that matter – I found this the most powerful documentary and book. The book is a reproduction of letters home to the United States from American soldiers serving in the Vietnam War. The letters are produced not only chronologically, but they follow the general feeling of the soldiers as the war progressed – hopeful and romantic about the war, to a feeling that there is no more good in the world.
In the documentary, the letters are read by actors (many of whom were in films about the Vietnam War) over actual film footage from the war. The film draws you in as you follow the soldier’s lives, the seemingly pointless jungle skirmishes against an unknown enemy, and the death of their comrades. The real shock value comes when a letter is read, often with a happy ending, and then text appears on the screen saying they were killed several days after the letter was written. It reminds you of the randomness of death in war and the true fact that no one escapes unharmed.
The final letter of the film occurs many years after the war, from a mother to her son who was killed in the war. I have reproduced the letter below and it is truly worth reading. I remember reading the end of the letter and feeling truly speechless.
A lot in this world doesn’t make sense. I truly believe that it is our duty to ensure the safe passage of humanity through time.
Today is February 13, 1984. I came to this black wall again to see and touch your name, and as I do I wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother’s heart. A heart broken 15 years ago today, when you lost your life in Vietnam.
And as I look at your name, William R. Stocks, I think of how many, many times I used to wonder how scared and homesick you must have been in that strange country called Vietnam. And if and how it might have changed you, for you were the most happy-go-lucky kid in the world, hardly ever sad or unhappy. And until the day I die, I will see you as you laughed at me, even when I was very mad at you, and the next thing I knew, we were laughing together.
But on this past New Year’s Day, I had my answer, I talked by phone to a friend of yours from Michigan, who spent your last Christmas and the last four months of your life with you. Jim told me how you died, for he was there and saw the helicopter crash. He told me how you had flown your quota and had not been scheduled to fly that day. How the regular pilot was unable to fly, and had been replaced by someone with less experience. How they did not know the exact cause of the crash. How it was either hit by enemy fire, or they hit a pole or something unknown. How the blades went through the chopper and hit you. How you lived about a half-hour, but were unconscious and therefore did not suffer.
He said how your jobs were like sitting ducks. They would send you men out to draw the enemy into the open and then they would send in the big guns and planes to take over. Meantime, death came to so many of you.
He told me how, after a while over there, instead of a yellow streak, the men got a mean streak down their backs. Each day the streak got bigger and the men became meaner. Everyone but you, Bill. He said how you stayed the same, happy-go-lucky guy that you were when you arrived in Vietnam. How your warmth and friendliness drew the guys to you. How your [lieutenant] gave you the nickname of “Spanky,” and soon your group, Jim included, were all known as “Spanky’s gang.” How when you died it made it so much harder on them for you were their moral support. And he said how you of all people should never have been the one to die.
Oh, God, how it hurts to write this. But I must face it and then put it to rest. I know that after Jim talked to me, he must have relived it all over again and suffered so. Before I hung up the phone I told Jim I loved him. Loved him for just being your close friend, and for sharing the last days of your life with you, and for being there with you when you died. How lucky you were to have him for a friend, and how lucky he was to have had you.
Later that same day I received a phone call from a mother in Billings, Montana. She had lost her daughter, her only child, a year ago. She needed someone to talk to for no one would let her talk about the tragedy. She said she had seen me on [television] on New Year’s Eve, after the Christmas letter I wrote to you and left at this memorial had drawn newspaper and television attention. She said she had been thinking about me all day, and just had to talk to me. She talked to me of her pain, and seemingly needed me to help her with it. I cried with this heartbroken mother, and after I hung up the phone, I laid my head down and cried as hard for her. Here was a mother calling me for help with her pain over the loss of her child, a grown daughter. And as I sobbed I thought, how can I help her with her pain when I have never completely been able to cope with my own?
They tell me the letters I write to you and leave here at this memorial are waking others up to the fact that there is still much pain left, after all these years, from the Vietnam War.
But this I know. I would rather to have had you for 21 years, and all the pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all.
Cover Image: Larry Burrows—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images