Excerpts from Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1967–1979)
EXCERPTS FROM DEAR AMERICA: LETTERS HOME FROM VIETNAM (1967–1979)
The twentieth century was a decade of war: of the hundred million war-related deaths worldwide since 1700, over 90 percent occurred in the twentieth century. Due in part to escalating advances in military technology, twentieth-century modern combat was exponentially more devastating than any previous incarnation. Also, new "total war" strategies radically increased civilian casualties and military "battle fatigue."
Those who experienced modern combat firsthand were more often than not psychologically traumatized: American combat veterans of the Vietnam War, in particular, exhibited "traumatic stress syndrome" in large numbers. Bernard Edelman's collection of letters home from American women and men in Vietnam provides us with a firsthand glimpse into the minds of the traumatized young soldiers and others. The two letters selected here are from U.S. soldiers about to return home and in both, the young men express their anxiety about integrating themselves back into "normal" life.
New York University
Going Home—PFC David Bowman, Co. B, 1st Bn., 8th Cav., 1st Cav. Div., An Khe/Phong Dien, 1967–1968
Dear Civilians, Friends, Draft Dodgers, etc.:
In the very near future, the undersigned will once more be in your midst, dehydrated and demoralized, to take his place again as a human being with the well-known forms of freedom and justice for all; engage in life, liberty and the somewhat delayed pursuit of happiness. In making your joyous preparations to welcome him back into organized society you might take certain steps to make allowances for the past twelve months. In other words, he might be a little Asiatic from Vietnamesitis and Overseasitis, and should be handled with care. Don't be alarmed if he is infected with all forms of rare tropical diseases. A little time in the "Land of the Big PX" will cure this malady.
Therefore, show no alarm if he insists on carrying a weapon to the dinner table, looks around for his steel pot when offered a chair, or wakes you up in the middle of the night for guard duty. Keep cool when he pours gravy on his dessert at dinner or mixes peaches with his Seagrams VO. Pretend not to notice if he acts dazed, eats with his fingers instead of silverware and prefers C-rations to steak. Take it with a smile when he insists on digging up the garden to fill sandbags for the bunker he is building. Be tolerant when he takes his blanket and sheet off the bed and puts them on the floor to sleep on.
Abstain from saying anything about powdered eggs, dehydrated potatoes, fried rice, fresh milk or ice cream. Do not be alarmed if he should jump up from the dinner table and rush to the garbage can to wash his dish with a toilet brush. After all, this has been his standard. Also, if it should start raining, pay no attention to him if he pulls off his clothes, grabs a bar of soap and a towel and runs outdoors for a shower.
When in his daily conversation he utters such things as "Xin loi" and "Choi oi" just be patient, and simply leave quickly and calmly if by some chance he utters "didi" with an irritated look on his face because it means no less than "Get the h——out of here." Do not let it shake you up if he picks up the phone and yells "Sky King forward, Sir" or says "Roger out" for good-by or simply shouts "Working."
Never ask why the Jones' son held a higher rank than he did, and by no means mention the word "extend." Pretend not to notice if at a restaurant he calls the waitress "Numbuh 1 girl" and uses his hat as an ashtray. He will probably keep listening for "Homeward Bound" to sound off over AFRS. If he does, comfort him, for he is still reminiscing. Be especially watchful when he is in the presence of women—especially a beautiful woman.
Above all, keep in mind that beneath that tanned and rugged exterior there is a heart of gold (the only thing of value he has left). Treat him with kindness, tolerance, and an occasional fifth of good liquor and you will be able to rehabilitate that which was once (and now a hollow shell) the happy-go-lucky guy you once knew and loved.
Last, but not least, send no more mail to the APO, fill the ice box with beer, get the civvies out of mothballs, fill the car with gas, and get the women and children off the streets—BECAUSE THE KID IS COMING HOME!!!!!
Going Home—Sp/4 Peter Roepcke, from Glendale, New York
20 April 1970
I don't know who will get home first, me or this letter. But I thought I would write anyway. It was so good to hear your voice [last night]. The connections were weak, but still the same you sounded great. I can still hear you saying, "I can't believe it." You sounded so happy, and it sounded like you did not believe that I only busted a few bones.
I got a call through to my parents a little while after I talked to you. My mother did not believe that I was coming home. But I finally got through to her. And, boy, was she happy. She said she was sorry that I got hurt, but also glad—you know, glad that it was only this and not something worse.
You don't know how close I have been to getting killed or maimed. Too many times I have seen guys near me get hit and go home in a plastic bag. Like I have said before, someone was looking over me.
Well, it is all over now. Now it's time to forget. But it's hard to forget these things. I close my eyes and try to sleep, but all I can see is Jenkins lying there with his brains hanging out or Lefty with his eyes shot out. You know these guys—we have lived with them for a long time. We know their wives or girlfriends. Then you stop to think it could be me. Hell, I don't know why I am writing all this. But it feels better getting it out of my mind.
So, doll, in titi time I will be with you again.…
Well, honey, I will close for now. Until I see you again,
I love you.
SOURCE: Bowman, David, and Peter Roepke. Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam. Edited by Bernard Edelman. New York: Norton, 1985, pp. 280–282, p. 287.