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Letters

 

By Pat Lisi

 

There is little chance of effectively explaining the importance of receiving letters when you are serving with the military in a hostile land, especially if you are in a combat outfit and are seeing death and destruction on a daily basis.  But, I’m going to give it a try just the same.

 

When I was in Vietnam with the 5th Marine Regiment in 1968 a letter from home could be a life-saver.  For those of us who spent our life in-country in the “bush” amongst the NVA and VC, the only way any of us would ever see a letter from home would be by way a resupply helicopter.  The system was great when it worked, but in enemy territory those resupply missions did not always happen as scheduled or expected.  Many things determined the success of creating a resupply landing zone (LZ) to allow for a helicopter to come in with food, water, ammunition, replacement Marines, mail, or anything else.

 

Sometimes by the end of daylight hours we were still in heavy contact with the enemy and the resupply bird was cancelled and saved only for emergencies, like the evacuation of wounded Marines.  At other times the air space had to be clear for tactical air strikes by fighter jets to beat the enemy back away from our own perimeter. If the battle was raging, it was no time to think about food or drink; running out of ammunition was always a concern, then, but no chopper was getting close to the LZ with jets weaving in and out of the red zone.

 

Weather was a huge factor as well.  If it was raining hard and the cloud cover was dangerously low, we could expect to do with what we had until such time as the sky cleared enough to send a pilot and crew our way.  Perhaps the only thing good about those particular scenarios was that the NVA and VC had to operate under the same nasty conditions, so when it rained torrentially the chances of them attacking us was slim, much to our delight.

 

Another thing that could thoroughly screw up a resupply was if there was a bigger, more severe skirmish going on in someone else’s TAOR, and all available air craft was then directed to assist those troops. This could be Army or Marine units that would have priority for immediate “air”, because they may be in more dire straits than us.  This only made sense.  No available birds basically meant no resupply, wait your turn.

 

“Improvise, adapt, and overcome”.  The Marine Corps engrains this into your head in such a way that, when you need to practice it, it happens naturally and automatically, and you just simply do it – what are your real choices, anyway?

 

 

 

Resupply helicopters have been known to be shot down on the way to an LZ.  This was very demoralizing to the troops and it happened more than once to our company of Marines in Nam.  One time in mid-October, 1968 two choppers were in the air and rushing a resupply to us as we sat perched atop Hill 100 in Quang Nam Province.   We had survived a tremendously savage attempt by the NVA to shoot us off the hill on the night of the 11th, but we persevered with great cost to us (and much greater cost to the NVA).  Besides the 8 Marines killed in action that night we also found ourselves with basically nothing left to eat or drink for awhile.  We were also dangerously low on ammunition which was unnerving to say the least.  For the next 5 days we sat atop Hill 100 in the rain wondering when it would let up enough to either get us re-supplied or get us the hell off that mountain. 

 

On the 16th a helicopter pilot braved a temporary open window when the rain stopped and the ceiling of clouds and fog lifted five hundred feet.  It came into our LZ fast, and we hurried to unload a few crates of ammo, a pallet of C-rations, and some water.  We then filled the helicopter with the bodies of the 8 KIA plus 1 other Marine who was rotating out of Vietnam to head home, as his tour of duty was almost over.  The bird lifted off from our LZ and banked left to travel back to An Hoa.

 

 A second chopper was coming off the next hill a mile away flying in our direction with replacement Marines, plus a bag of mail for us.  As our chopper and the second one were about to pass by each other in the air they crashed head-on, and we all watched in complete and utter horror as both machines spun out of control, burst into flames, and then twirled and smashed into the river below.  All was lost – both crews of Marines, the Marine who was finally going home, and of course our mail.

 

A serviceman or woman is happy to get a letter from just about anyone when they’re stationed far away from home.  This has everything to do with simply staying connected to the people they know back there and being shown that they are still loved. The only exception to this rule is the so-called “Dear John Letter”.  No one wants one of those.  Heck, the letter doesn’t even have to be from anyone they know.  A letter is a letter.

 

I dare say that letters from home (or no letters from home) can mean the difference between living and dying during a combat tour. 

 

In Nam, when men would go long periods of time without hearing anything from home they tended to go into a deep, dark withdrawal.  Their attitude changed treacherously as their focus was no longer keen like it was before.  They might do something stupid or reckless.  The wind was out of their sail, so to speak, and careless mistakes would cost many lives.  If a combat soldier walks around in a funk because all they’re thinking about is why the hell no one back home loves them anymore, they begin to think that living through the war really isn’t all that important to the people they said goodbye to awhile ago.

 

 

I was very lucky.  During my year in Vietnam I received lots of mail.  I also sent out tons of letters as I tried my best to answer anyone who wrote to me.  This, of course, would produce a response and the whole cycle would continue.  I had a fiancé’ then who wrote a couple times a week, and a friend of mine in Wisconsin who happened to be a Catholic Priest  (Father Roger Taylor) was the 2nd most prolific letter writer during my tour.  I probably heard from the padre three or four times a month.  I’d have to say it was his letters that gave me the most inspiration and spirit to fight on. 

 

Keeping my letter writing gear safe and dry was an extremely difficult task.  Vietnam is a very wet country and it rains a lot.  Wading through streams and rice paddies didn’t help, either.  My technique was to take paper and envelopes and double pack them in plastic bags that I then wrapped inside a green towel stuffed into my haversack.  We didn’t get to An Hoa very often (our combat base) but every time we did I would restock the paper items.  The letters written in the field would get sealed shut (didn’t need to stamp them) and sent off aboard resupply helicopters going to An Hoa, DaNang, and ultimately back to “the world”.

 

If you know someone right now who is stationed in a country where we are fighting, make sure to send them a letter as often as you can.  It isn’t the same as e-mailing, by the way.  True, electronic communications are better than nothing at all, but they aren’t nearly as effective as sitting down and putting pen to paper.  Why?  Letters can be carried by the recipient; a computer is not a good substitute.  Your letter can be brought out from your soldiers’ shirt pocket whenever he or she needs to read it, again and again and again.  It’ll be a cherished treasure for sure.  And, keep them coming.  I guarantee you that your person serving in the military will remember those letters for the rest of their days.

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