Soldiers write letters they hope will never be delivered.
|The Letter Home
The mountains stretched behind the encampment, barren and rough. Tomorrow the patrol would move out just before sunrise and follow the ravine where the village elder said the enemy moved by night. The patrol hoped to catch the Taliban fighters on their way back to their village. Word around the fire camp was that the fighters knew the patrol would be looking for them. Contact with the enemy was almost certain.
"Here's the letter, Mike." Tom handed the sealed and addressed envelope to his friend. It was a letter Tom hoped would never be mailed.
"I'll give it back to you when you get back." In the waning sunlight, Mike saw little hope in his friend's downturned eyes. He reached out and placed his hand on Tom's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "You hear me man?" he said, "you'll be alright; I'll give this letter back to you when you get back."
"Yeah, I hear you," Tom forced his lips into a smile, "but just in case, okay?"
"Yeah, okay." Mike put the letter in his pocket and walked back to the tent with his friend.
Writing the letter had become a custom. Every man wrote one, some to their girlfriends, some to their mother's, and others wrote the letter to their wives. No one had a name for the letters; no one knew what to call them. So they were just called the letter. The letters were written to say good-bye in case of death.
Just before dawn, Mike watched the platoon single-file out the side gate of the forward operating base. Those that were not part of the patrol were there to see the platoon off and give words of encouragement. With a slap on the back, nervous words of bravado passed between the troops. Everyone going out had double-checked to make sure they remembered to bring whatever it was they thought brought them luck.
For Vasquez it was the small, gold cross his mother had given him the day he left for Afghanistan. He only wore it when he went out on patrol. He was afraid that if he wore it every day he would use up the luck it provided for him before his time came to go home. For O'Neil it was the four-leaf-clover enclosed in a glass circle his father carried with him when he had served in the Vietnam War. His father was convinced it had gotten him through that bloody year, and he convinced his son it would do the same for him. O'Neil didn't know if his father was right, but he took it with him on patrol...just in case it did have miraculous saving powers.
For Tom it was the pictures of Trudy, his high school sweetheart he married just one month before being sent over. Her pictures were taped inside his helmet, her golden hair curled to her shoulders—her belly round with their first child, due in one month. When he received the picture two weeks ago he put it next to the one he had taped inside his helmet nearly a year ago. As he walked past the gate he glanced at Mike and smiled nervously, then touched the part of his helmet where Trudy's picture was attached. He had been on many patrols during his eleven-months here, but he was nervous about this one. Maybe it was because he was going home in five weeks. Or maybe it was that his child would be born soon. Or maybe it was because, like he had been told, sometimes a soldier just knows when it's going to happen. Mike tried to assure him he'd be alright, and a small part of him thought Mike was right.
News of the fire fight reached the fire base by noon. Standing in the midday heat the company listened to the First Sergeant give the sketchy details of what had been an ambush of their comrades. Mike's heart raced and his fingers traced the sharp corners of the envelope in his pocket as the Sergeant spoke, filling the assembled men with sorrow. The enemy knew the patrol was coming, something that happened all too often, and they waited in ambush for the patrol rather than move out to their normal nightly fighting. The fire fight was violent and short, no one in the patrol made it out of the ravine alive.
After the names of the men killed in action were read to the silent company of soldiers, they all dropped to one knee and said a prayer for their comrades—their friends. When they stood, Mike was called aside by the Sergeant.
"Mike," Sergeant Miller put his arm around Mike's shoulder. "I know you and Corporal Grover were good friends." Their eyes met. "He told me before he left yesterday that if anything happened he wanted you to escort his body home. Go pack your gear, you're leaving with the supply truck in an hour.
The craggy Blue Ridge Mountains cut a jagged line across the glistening blue sky. The people of Oak Grove, Virginia had welcomed Mike and made him feel at home. Mike had lived his entire life in Florida, and some of the people he met thought it was odd that he had never seen mountains before. But he thought it odder that most of them had never seen the ocean. He had learned a lot about perspective since coming here two days ago.
On his first day in town Mike had escorted his friend's flag-draped coffin to the funeral home. He was sitting in a booth in the diner across the street when he saw a pretty blond woman walk in and look around tentatively. He knew it was Trudy—the girl looking around was pregnant. She walked slowly to where he was seated.
"Hi," she said nervously, "you must be Mike Townsend...my Tom's friend."
"Yes ma'am," Mike stood, "and you're Trudy, I've seen your picture so many times."
"Yes, Tom told me he carried my picture with him everywhere."
"Yes he did...he kept your pictures in his helmet."
Trudy tilted her head and a sad smile creased her lips. "Tom told me that if anything happened to him that you would escort him home. I hope that wasn't an inconvenience for you."
Mike didn't answer right away. He was lost in the thought that this young woman, about to give birth to a child who would have no father, was concerned with him. "No ma'am," he finally said, "it was an honor to be asked to be with him."
Trudy smiled and asked, "Do you mind if I sit with you?"
"Of course not," Mike said and took her arm as she slowly lowered herself into the booth. "Can I get you something?"
"No, I'm fine. I hoped we could talk for a while." The diamond ring on her finger sparkled when she put her hands on the table. Her eyes narrowed with the question before she asked it. "What is it like over there? I mean, they never told me anything about what happened to Tom. Did they tell you?"
As Mike hesitated he looked down and saw his reflection in the cup of black coffee on the table in front of him. How much should he tell her? She had a right to know what happened to her husband, but he wondered if it was his place to tell her. He took a deep breath and across the table. Her blue eyes were sad, she was pale. He looked down at her hands, folded in front of her, her knuckles were white with tension. He slowly let the breath out. "His patrol was ambushed. It was over quickly...Tom didn't suffer." He raised his eyes and met hers. She was silent, obviously lost in the world she tried to envision.
"I'm very proud of him...we all are," she smiled. "His parents, all of his family, we're all proud of him."
"He was a good soldier...and a good friend." Mike saw the tears well up in Trudy's eyes. "Are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine," she said, then forced a thin smile.
Mike reached into his jacket pocket and took out the letter Tom had given him the night before he went out on his last patrol. He reached across the table and handed it to Trudy. When she saw the handwriting on the envelope she held the envelope against her heart. "Is this the letter?" she asked, "the one Tom told me all of you write but hope will never be delivered?" Mike didn't answer and tears spilled from Trudy's eyes, making wet lines on her cheeks before dripping from her chin.
"Will you stay with me while I read it?" she asked.
"If you want me to..."
Trudy gently opened the envelope, unfolded the letter, then held the paper to her lips. Her hands trembled as she began to read. Mike was able to see the words at the top of the page. As Trudy silently read the letter from her dead husband, Mike repeated the words he saw written at the top.
Dear Trudy...if you are reading this....
Mike averted his eyes and fought back the tears that had built there.
Grand Prize winner for October Honoring Our Vets contest.
Entered in the Honoring Our Vets contest, October 2011.
Word Count 1543