Friday, April 17, 2009

Writing Our History

*Retold with permission…

When Pam was attending high school in her native state of Texas in the late 1960s, she learned with some surprise that her neighbor’s son, Jim, across the street (a few years older than her), was now in the Army and deployed to Vietnam. “I didn’t know Jim that well,” she reminded me. “It wasn’t like we were bosom buddies, but I wanted to write to him anyway. They were a nice family.” Obtaining an address from his parents, she began writing him letters. Soon thereafter, she and her family moved elsewhere, but she continued writing.

The letters were never terribly complex or deep, Pam told me. She’d just tell him about school, or their move, goings on in town, interesting news items, life in general, or the normal day-to-day routine. She kept him in the loop with home. Occasionally she would receive a response from Jim saying where he was, how things were going well or not so well, and their losses and gains. As heart wrenching as his letters could be and as young as she was and still in high school, she continued writing to him. After a time, Jim began sharing some of her letters with others in his unit. They may not have known Pam, but it was nice to hear some good news from home – in the states where things were normal, peaceful, and routine. At Christmas she received a card signed by Jim’s whole unit. In a strange way which only troops can understand fully, she was family to them.

After about a year of back and forth correspondence with Jim, she received an abrupt and devastating letter informing her that he had been injured and evacuated. No forwarding address was provided. Graduating high school at about this time, not knowing his condition or status, she never heard from Jim again.

Well over twenty years later, while sorting through a pile of old mail in the attic one day and happening upon the stack of letters from Jim, she was reminded how, though it had diminished over the years, it still continually gnawed at her not knowing what ultimately came of Jim’s injury. “I didn’t even know if he was dead or not,” she admitted. In an effort to determine if he survived his injuries or even the war itself, she went so far as to visit the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC to search for his name. After running through the entire list of more than 58,000 servicemen, Pam could not find his anywhere. “I guess he didn’t die in the war, but I still didn’t know what happened to him.”

Despite being married with a family of her own, the uncertainty of Jim’s condition still bothered her routinely. She couldn’t simply drop it. After a few calls to various government agencies, she was told that while they would not relinquish an address, if she had mail she wished delivered, they would forward it to him. At long last, she determined he was alive. She sent the letter and waited eagerly for a response.

Sometime later, she received a phone call. It was Jim. He was alive, he was doing well, happily married and living life to the fullest back in the states. He personally thanked her for corresponding, apologized for losing contact with her, and revealed how immensely encouraging it was to hear from somebody back home, no matter how distant or little known. “It was good to know that somebody cared,” he told her.

That was twenty years ago. Though they do not remain in contact, the matter is settled. Jim survived the war, he made it home, and Pam is finally at peace to know it. She still has the letters, too, and the Christmas card, and the knowledge that somebody found a few encouraging words so pivotal to maintaining troop morale. This is the stuff of stories; good ones and true ones.

Today, this nation is again at war. Close to 200,000 US servicemen and women are currently deployed in two distant combat zones, and they, like all other warriors and Americans far from home, would be deeply encouraged to know that somebody back here cares. We have been presented with an historical opportunity to write new stories just as powerful and meaningful as Pam and Jim’s. We have the opportunity to connect stranger and servicemember and walk away as patriots, warriors and friends. We have the ability to contribute a short chapter in the heartwarming tale of United States history. And it begins with only a letter.

To further simplify this process, the United States Post Office (USPS) offers special discounts and flat rate Priority Mail packages that can be obtained free of charge from the USPS. They will even pick them up from your home or place of business for free. Click here and here for more information on the USPS’s special offer.

Exhaustive lists of deployed servicemember addresses can be easily obtained from a wide array of troop support and Department of Defense websites, as well as from friends and neighbors across the country. As small a percentage of the population as they may be, there are troops everywhere, and even more so their families, who will gladly provide a means by which you may contact their loved ones.

If you have not done so, I highly encourage you to send a servicemember a letter, a package, and some good news from home. Years from now, it is my hope that attics across the country will be cluttered with pieces of individual national history. They comprise what makes this country great.

*For more writing about sending mail to troops, see also “Good People,” “Mail Woes.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

Sarah said...

When I discovered the letters that my parents wrote to each other in WWll, I realized that the letters to my dad from my mother and the folks back home was the medicine that kept him alive in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.

Ben is right on with this. Please consider writing a servicemember a letter. It's easy, takes very little time, costs pennies and can make a HUGE difference in a servicemembers day.
Unlike email, a letter can be touched, smelled, folded up and tucked away only to be read and reread again.

If Pam and Jim would have emailed each other during the Vietnam War, do you think they would have made a reconnection years later?

I doubt it.

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