The saddest thing I own is a box of letters that my dad wrote home from Vietnam. I found them in the throw-away pile when my parents were cleaning out their house for a yard sale, and I “rescued” them. I still feel conflicted about taking them. They were not written to me or mine to decide to throw away or not, but I couldn’t let them be lost. They are mostly letters to my mother, but also a few to his cousin Tim, also in Vietnam, who, unlike my father, did not make it home. In these letters are the fresh horrors of war from an 18 year old boy. He wrote about his homesickness, his fear, his confusion, his anger, his friends. He wrote about watching his friends die after a raid on his platoon. He wrote about the blinding fear while out on watch, knowing that any second someone would pop out from behind a tree and kill him. He wrote about killing a Vietnamese soldier who was probably no more than 12 or 13 years old. He wrote about watching a fellow soldier rape a Vietnamese woman behind a restaurant right before his first tour was over. He wrote about wanting to make his father proud of him. He wrote about his nightmares.
My father came home from Vietnam in 1972 after being shot in the hip, knee, and chest during a raid that took the lives of many around him. He came home a different man. My mother says that he had lost much of his kindness and sensitivity in the war, but she married him anyway. He joined the police force and proceeded to have six children of which I am the oldest. My father could never get close to me or my siblings. He did not know how to love us, so he became hard and cold. He was at times physically and emotionally abusive, and never once told me that he loved me. Not once. When I would say “I love you, Daddy,” he would stiffen up and clear his throat. I spent most of my life wishing for his love, and when I read those letters, only six months before the heart attack that took his life, I saw my father for the first time…I mean, really SAW him. I saw the fragile, poetic, passionate voice of the boy hidden inside the gruff, hard man who hurt me in so many ways. In the last months of his life, I was able to love that boy inside of him, and know that the boy loved me dearly, even though the man could not.
When I read the letters today, I am overcome with grief. I wish the world could have been gentler to him. I wish that I could have been able to reach him in time.
Tags: abuse, father, letters, vietnam
Other People's Thoughts
My own Father possesses much of the distant and unemotional persona of yours. I have struggled for years to understand and move past this tough exterior to a deeper relationship with him and consequently my other relationships in my life. I really appreciated your “gift” (and it is) of sharing your memories and history of your experience with your Father’s letters and relationship. I understand it must’ve taken alot of time and commitment to post your story (especially when its so beautifully written. Please know that your efforts helped me understand I am not alone and that others have the same and often greater struggles from their past. Thank You.
— Karen Heather Sunday May 7, 2006 #
Beautiful story. Sad but beautiful. At least you got to know a kinder, gentler father through his letters.
— Jen Sunday May 7, 2006 #
I too did 2 tours in Vietnam and went through the same things that your dad did. Please believe me when I say that he did love you but like me he just couldn’t bring himself to admit it.
— Eddie Sunday May 7, 2006 #
Don’t ever throw those letters out. Coming from a genealogist, let me tell you they will be worth their weight in gold if someone decides to do your family history/tree. I’d love to have letters like this to go along with my other documents. Hold onto the treasure.
— Cindy Sunday May 7, 2006 #
I think that a war does this to the people who have to deal with it directly. My father is a WWII vet and he too is distant. I don’t remember him telling any of us kids that he loves us but I know he does it is just hard for him to let himself get close.
Does anyone else find that their vet fathers or mothers have a hard time making attachments post war?
— Virginia Sunday May 7, 2006 #
Growing up my dad was my hero and I wanted nothing more than to be just like him and be with him, he was fun and adventurous, and poetic. When he would talk about Vietnam though, there was such a helpess desperation and trauma that I could never understand, such a deep sadness that no hug or kiss that I could offer would ever be able to console. As a young women now I find that I seek my father in every man in an attempt to understand. When I really started to become like him I actually hated myself for it because he is unattainable, distant, tortured, those things I didn’t want for myself. I will never really understand my father. I’m learning that all I can do is try to understand me and just honor him by accepting his pain and the love he does give.
— Nicky Sunday May 7, 2006 #
One of my best friends is in the military. I worry that he’ll get sent to war and this same thing will happen to him.
— Laina Monday May 8, 2006 #
What an awful load your father had to live with. I am glad that you are mature to allow understanding to smooth your path to forgiveness and healing. I experienced very similar rejection in trying and failing at receiving much-needed affection from my father. Your earthly fathers will always be fallible, but your heavenly Father is perfect and will fill in all the emotional gaps for you. Much of what we have to learn on this part of the journey is just acknowledging our dependence upon Him and allowing Him to be what only He can and should be for us. Besides, before you know it you will see your dad again, for eternity, and the relationship will be perfect… forever! It’ll make this little drop in the bucket seem like nothing.
— Rémi Monday May 15, 2006 #
Your story reminded me of similar stories in my family in Finland. My generation, or my parents’ generation, have not experienced any wars personally, but my grandfather fought in WWII against the USSR and my great-grandfather fought in the Finnish civil war of 1918. Both my mother’s side and my father’s side of the family have inherited something quiet and melancholic from them. The men were hurt terribly and compensated by trying to hide their weakness, turning into cold, demanding bosses or abusive alcoholics. Of course, there were positive exceptions, most people managed to live a normal life on the surface, but the nightmares didn’t go away. My grandfather waited for 50 years before he could talk about his experiences and confess that he was plagued by nightmares. Maybe it was fear of being forgotten that caused him to him open up. I intend to collect his stories, those stories that my father never heard when he was my age. I suppose it is hard for Dad to forgive grandfather who never said anything nice to him, only demanded obedience and success. I wonder how many generations it takes until the scars of the wars have healed. Maybe they are never healed, only forgotten, until a new war opens them up. I wish there was a way to break the vicious circle.
— kuunsäde Monday May 22, 2006 #
It is rather sad how our servicemen and women go to war and come home a different person. My wife also has many letters I sent to her from Vietnam during my tour beginning in Dec 1968 to Jan 1970. It almost reminds me of a divorce one would have. We could summarise it and say it is a total separation of ourself. This kind of action I am told is what I have been diagnosed with and that is PTSD. I also was in Vietnam but I am one of the lucky ones because even though I was wounded on three separate occasions I still have all my limbs and my mind always drifts and truly remains with my fellow Rangers who lost their life and are still on patrol. PTSD is something I can’t get rid of even with the VA’s help and my wife constantly reminds me of how strangely I may act during nights. Normality is only a word because as I search my past it is not normal to go outside and make sure there are no bad guys around my AO or I still keep a weapon under my mattress just in case. Yes, I also see things during the day and jump or fall to my knees when I hear invlections in the Vietnamese langue at our local market. Helicopter wop-wop sound also make me relive safety because we were extracted by choppers to safety. PTSD victims really relive the trama everyday of their lives and I am an example. I can only say that you need to just stay with your dad and believe in him because he may not immediately show positive reactions to your kindness but deep inside of him he will understand the love you posses of him. God bless you and your dad.
— Ranger Steve Friday June 16, 2006 #
I have a father who is the same way. Just because he doesnt show hislove for you doesnt meanthat he didnt I wish the best for you and your family.
— Anonymous Monday November 6, 2006 #
this is an special thing to share knowing that it is hard to explain and share i know how it feels i lost an uncle in the vietnam war
— jazenda Wednesday December 6, 2006 #
I stumbled across this beautiful website only to feel a little comforted to know it wasn’t me personally that my dad could not get close too- it wasnt my fault. He too served in Vietnam from 69-71 and growing up we used to beg my dad to talk about it. Anytime it came up in history class growing up, we would be so proud to say our dad served. He was emotionally tortured and we had no clue as to what he relived everyday. He was always detatched growing up, but he was a really great dad most days. Until about age 13 when I became a young adult did he become someone I grew to hate. He was completely detatched by then…he didnt know how to express anything towards us. He was verbally and emotionally abusive. He also became an alcoholic. I haven’t spoken to him in over 2 years. He has desperately seeked us out, but it has been to painful to watch him drink through the rest of his life and refuse help for that or his post traumatic stress. What’s sad is now that I am a mom, I see the effects this war had on him. I see what it did to me and my siblings. I have to stop the pain in myself before it could carry on to my children. Now my girls are without a Grandpa. All of this because of war. I pray for our troops that are experiencing any bit of this pain and hope their futures are better than that of a Vietnam Vet. I pray for my dad, that before he too passes, he can get the help he deserves. Our country should do more to help these men and women out.
— Alexis Monday December 11, 2006 #
I searched the google
for the word innocent having read this morning what a young widow says about her recently dead husband in Iraq.
I felt a deep sadness for every US soldier whose patriotism lead him/her to the battle ground.
When will the leaders accept there are no winners in a war?
— Jose O Cotta Tuesday January 2, 2007 #
I came upon this website trying to find some old letters wrote to friends and families by soldiers of the Vietnam war. This is a beautiful and very remarkable story. With all beauty there seems to be a bit of pain!
— Samantha Sunday March 25, 2007 #
Thanks for sharing this story. I am glad you were able to gain insight into the man your father really was, and the lifetime effects war can have on its participants.
— Spike Tuesday April 10, 2007 #
We recently came across my uncleâ€™s Vietnam papers and photos and letters of condolensce while packing my grandmother for a move cross country. He was killed in Vietnam when he was 20 years old. I was 10 at the time and remember it vividly. My grandmother, the survivor that she is, is now 92 years old. I remember the song playing on the record player at home when i walked into the house and asked my sister where my parents where the day i found out of his death. Anyway, all my aunts, my uncle and father wanted to destroy the memories, no one wanted the papers and photos while packing. Iâ€™m not sure where his purple heart is but I did manage to wrestle the papers from them and take them home. The condolensce letters are sad... from Senators and President Johnson. My uncleâ€™s best friend David was stationed in Korea at the time and upon getting the obit newspaper clipping from his mother he wrote to my grandmother and it is the saddest letter I have ever read. Hopes and dreams between the two young men planning to hang out and start a business together after the war were taken away. I understand why my father, aunts and uncle did not want to hold on to these memories. But someone has to in a family. This is of historical importance to everyone. Thank you for your website.
— JMS Tuesday April 17, 2007 #
Although it is a different time and war, my wife says that I relate to your father. Iâ€™m a veteran of Afganistan and Iraq. Before I left my wife tells me I was a different person. I was very fun loving, social, compassionate, and passionate, and now Iâ€™m not. I still feel the same for my wife, but I just donâ€™t feel the same in general. Iâ€™ve never been physically abusive, but I often say things that I donâ€™t mean because of the aggresion I have built up. I lost my mother while deployed, lost three of my best friends along with a handful of others that I knew very well. It hurts everytime I see or hear about somthing like this.
Life just goes on for everyone back in the states, but our brothers and sisters are dying everyday while people are back here joking. I donâ€™t find that there is anything else left to laugh about. This story about your father was very moving, and I hope to learn from it and try to love my family like they deserve. Thanks
— SGT Purser Sunday April 22, 2007 #
I have spent a good amount of time in research on this very topic. I sympathize with your fatherâ€™s condition in a way that is unfamiliar to me. You felt the worst affects of the war. I would like to take a look at these letters for research purposes. If you wish to participate, please send me the content of the letters to the aforementioned email address. thanks
— firstname.lastname@example.org Sunday May 13, 2007 #
I was in Vietnam stationed at Phan Rang and Pleiku. I served two tours over there. I can feel for your father very much. Until I read your letter I never thought much about my relationship to my kids, just thought that it was me and not the war, after reading your comments, I have the same problem of relating to my family. I am 59 and my kids are all moved away to other states but I am going to try to reach out to them as much as possible, it itâ€™s not to late. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and your Dads thoughts with me and helping me to understand. Maybe old dogs and can be trained
— email@example.com Saturday May 19, 2007 #
Windy: I suffered from ongoing panic attacks for years. I was a wreck all the time until I was diagnosed and treated for them. My relationship with my wife and children suffered because of the hell I was going through. I think they understand now. I am sure your father suffered from PTSD. Fear and emotional scars that your dad endured wreaked havoc with him I am sure. I am glad you really got the chance to know him through his letters. Your dad would be so proud of you!!! Trust me when I say your father did love youâ€¦ God Bless
— Spec 4 Tom E Friday June 1, 2007 #
I have been looking for a sticker that represents what my father gave to the country by serving in Vietnam.
It is amazing to find that there are others out there that go through the same things as I. My father suffers from Alcoholism and PTSD. He is very distant, doesnâ€™t call or answer my calls if I leave a message. I know that he loves me. I have to remind myself of that. It used to be very difficult because I didnâ€™t realize that mostly the way he acted was because of influences out of his control. They never have a chance when they are sent overseas to fight people just like themselves.
As I have grown up I have come to realize that war is tragic, you are never the same when you come back. Some people may think they are the same person but it is never the person that left you that comes back home.
Thank you for sharing your story with me. It gives me a fresh understanding believe it or not. I have been thinking of writing a letter to my father for some time and now I know that I must do it before it is too late!
— Megan Saturday June 2, 2007 #
Thanks for sharing this corner of your heart. I was listening to some old songs tonight (Letter from Vietnam, for one) and then found this website. I seem to always think of the Vietnam War in the wee hours of the morning and how it affected so many lives and families, inlcuding my own. I truly believe your father loved you, and keeping those letters was the right thing to do. It was a blessing that you were able to see the â€śyoung manâ€ť in your father and touch that part of his spirit before it became jaded with the horrors and memories of war. Bless you and yours.
— Joe Thursday August 16, 2007 #
Since yesterday when I found a box of my fatherâ€™s letters to his parents, I have also begun to understand my father a little bit more. Iâ€™m still young of age, but I know that I am mature enough to understand his personality now, and the personality that he had during the war through reading his letters to home. I have to say that my Dad is different in most cases- from all of the pictures that I have of when myself and my siblings were younger, my Dad shared a great amount of compassion and love for us all. So, from all generalities speaking, my Dad seems to be able to hide the affect that the war had on him during that time.
I still see my father as a serious person, and someone who wants to have only the best for the society and sticks hard with his opinions. I plan on speaking to him soon to hear his side of the story of the war.
— Lanae Friday September 7, 2007 #
My father was the last to be killed in Viet Nam 2/29/1972. They called him Tennesseans last hero. He might have known your father. My dad was in the 11th Armoured Calvry. F-Troop his commander was who they called the Rock. It would be neat if they knew each other. Thanks for posting this. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maybe we could find out if they did know each other.
— Tnsweetie Saturday November 10, 2007 #
First I would like to thank your father for his service, I am Vietnamese and left when I was 9. It’s sacrifices like his and your family that I have what I have today in this great country. I am sorry to hear about your past. I am sure your father loved your family very much. Best of luck and God Bless. Treasure those letter as they are your connection to him. The boy who wrote those letter loved his family very much. War is a terrible thing, and the men and women who serve have my greatest admiration and love.
— Sonny Sunday November 23, 2008 #
I am so glad to have read this. I am currently dealing with a father who won’t call or write or email or share anything with me. I have called and may talk 2 times a year. I ask my mom why he doesn’t call back but she doesn’t want to interfere for dad may get mad and say ‘if my kids dont know I love them by now then they never will’. I don’t understand that. My dad was in vietnam as well and drinks everyday to deal with it. He only talks about war when he is really intoxicated and he will cry. But without the drink he won’t share anything and works really hard as an escape. Makes me sad.
— stacy Sunday November 29, 2009 #
My father’s letters were thrown away by his mother. He did not have a girlfriend at the time, so he could only write to his mother. He has never talked much about his service that resulted in shrapnel and bullet wounds in both legs. He merely says it took place in either cambodia or laos. His scars are HUGE. I am sad he has no more to share with us. You are blessed with letters because so many warriors decide to shut off and the only window into their world is what they wrote. I am so sad I cannot read my own father’s thoughts.
— mash Friday May 28, 2010 #
The Saddest Thing I Own is a 2005 commission of New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc., (aka Ether-Ore) for its Turbulence web site. It is supported by the Jerome Foundation in celebration of the Jerome Hill Centennial and in recognition of the valuable contributions of artists to society.