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Letters from home, from the family, from one's girlfriend were like treasures to us. At Khe Sanh, during the siege in 1968, resupply of ammo, equipment, food, etc. took priority over mail deliveries. The result was that we got it irregularly and not often.
Being surrounded by 40,000 NVA meant that our Recon jobs were 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 from the length of my tour there. Those that were sent from Khe Sanh were smeered with the red dust of that place. We were never able to be very clean and we were living in bunkers we had dug into the earth and covered 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. 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.
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. They represent a real, breathing journal of my time in Vietnam. Some of them bring tears to my eyes. Some of them are embarrasing 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.