Letters from home; methods change but needs remain
August 29, 2013
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- A Soldier hunkers down, deep in the jungles of Vietnam, devouring a letter that's taken weeks to arrive. A wife opens a package filled with gifts from 1940s' Italy, a beautiful wine decanter crushed in shipment. A Soldier tearfully watches through Skype as his wife gives birth half a world away. The methods of communication may have changed through the decades, and the need to connect never has.
"People weren't so sure about what tomorrow would bring, whether they'd live or die. (That) made it really important that they keep hearing from each other, their husbands and wives," said retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bob Richert, a chaplain during the Vietnam War, but his words ring true for all wars.
When Wayne Brown shipped out, he'd been dating his girlfriend, Jerry Sutherland, for only three months. It was 1943. The United States was fully engaged in World War II, and Brown was preparing for deployment to Europe.
Sutherland wrote to him daily, but mail delivery was sporadic in the chaos of the European theater. Brown landed at Utah Beach June 12, 1944, just six days after D-Day, and was wounded less than a month later. A bullet ripped through his shoulder.
"The mail was horrible because they'd send it to your company, (then) they'd send it to the hospital, then to the (rehabilitative) hospital. By the time I got it, I had a bundle of letters three inches thick bound with a rubber band," he said.
Brown found it difficult to write back.
"That wasn't one of my priorities," he said. "I was trying to stay alive."
He had some close calls in his 14 months overseas. A bullet ricocheted, just missing his lung, and a piece of shrapnel hit his back, half an inch to the right of his spine.
When he was injured, a telegram was sent to his parents informing them that he had been wounded, but with no additional details.
"(It) said he was injured, but never said where or how bad. We just wondered until we heard from him," Sutherland said.
His mother went through torment with every telegram.
"She was imagining everything, not knowing anything," Sutherland said.
Not knowing whether he was safe was hard for Sutherland, too.
"She didn't know whether I was dead or alive," Brown said. "Communications weren't like they are today. I never talked to her at all the whole time I was gone. All I got were her letters."
Sutherland treasured the letters Brown was able to write.
"I ran home every noon (from work), over half a mile or more, to see if there was a letter from him," she said. "When he came back, I was really in great shape."
The letters were full of love and hope for the future.
"He was in the thick of it, but he did tell me what he thought of me, and he thought that we could have a real good life together," she said.
Wayne and Jerry Brown, now 90 and 87, celebrated 68 years of marriage in July.
"We've had a great life together," Wayne Brown said.
When Ruby Moore gave birth to her daughter in 1944, her husband, who was deployed during the Italian campaign, didn't find out for weeks.
"My sister-in-law sent a cable, and the Red Cross sent a cable. He was in a (rest and relaxation) camp, and he didn't get it until he got back to the base," she said.
Moore's husband sent her letters and gifts from Italy. He sent an Italian wine decanter that was crushed when it came.
"He sent me some ugly shoes from Morocco that had pointed toes, and those lasted, of course," she said, laughing. "Very little (of what he sent) arrived intact."
He also sent her flowers.
"(The flowers) went to Eureka, Calif. (instead of Eureka, Kan.), and they actually sent them through the mail back to me somehow," she said. "When I got them, they were dead, and that was really heart wrenching. If they'd been fresh, it would have been a joy, but it reminded me of all that was going on."
From World War II to Korea, very little changed in communication between the front lines and the homefront.
"All we had was letters," said Tino Rael, Korean War veteran.
Rael was only 17 when he joined the Navy.
He wrote home every chance he got and eagerly anticipated letters from home.
"I'd always wait until my (watch) time was over and then read my mail," he said. "(It) felt good."
His mother would also send packages with treats, such as candy and gum.
"One time she sent me some cookies, and I wrote and told her not to send any cookies anymore because they were spoiled by the time I got them," he said.
One Christmas, when they were in port in Hawaii, he got to talk to his mother by telephone.
"The operator contacted the next door neighbor and asked if my mother could go next door to speak on the telephone because we had no telephone," he said.
Two brothers, two wars
Between Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm, communication began to change more swiftly.
Joe Cisneros served in Vietnam, attached to the 4th Infantry Division, and his brother, Daniel Cisneros, served in Desert Storm.
"It's not like it is now," Joe Cisneros said. "I see these guys on the TV talking on the cell phones. Back then we didn't have that stuff. The communication we had back then was writing letters."
"My mom would receive letters, and in his letters he would tell us how he was really doing, the things he was experiencing out there," Daniel Cisneros said.
The letters from Vietnam were infrequent though.
"When you're out (on missions), you don't have time to write letters, and then you have monsoon season when it rains all the time," Joe Cisneros said. "You can't be writing a letter unless you're someplace that's dry."
Once he got a Red Cross message, and the company commander told him to return to the division firebase. He worried the whole way, afraid that something had happened to his parents.
"(I) walked over to the Red Cross. They just told me, 'Your parents are worried about you. You haven't written a letter to them in three months."
They wouldn't let him leave until he had written a letter.
Reel-to-reel recordings were available, but had their own challenges.
"I won two reel to reels in a raffle, but we never did tapes," said retired 1st Sgt. Bob Carr. "It was hard to get tapes mailed. You couldn't just slip the reel into an envelope and write 'free' on it and send it. You had to find a little box, and little boxes were hard to find."
Another option for some in Vietnam was the Military Affiliate Radio System. Phone calls could be made over shortwave radio, but each speaker had to say "over" when they finished so the MARS operator knew when to key the transmitter.
When Daniel Cisneros deployed for Desert Storm, his brother, Joe, wrote to him.
"I gave him some advice. Never volunteer for anything, and don't ever try to be a hero. Keep your head down," Joe Cisneros said. "He wrote me back and said it was some of the best advice he'd ever gotten."
Phone calls were possible, but difficult to make, especially during the early days of Desert Storm.
"When we first went to Saudi Arabia, before we crossed the border into Iraq, (it was) an eight-hour drive by truck … and then we waited in line because there's hundreds (of people). So you waited hours to talk for five or 10 minutes, and then an eight-hour drive back to the home station," Daniel Cisneros said. "I only did that once, and I told my wife, 'I am not going to call you back.'"
Instead, the Family communicated by recording cassette messages to each other. Later, civilians working for oil companies in Iraq would record videocassette recordings for the Soldiers to send back.
"While my brother was gone (in Vietnam), I never heard his voice, just got pictures," Daniel Cisneros said. "Vietnam was totally different from the Gulf."
Whatever the communication available, it was vitally important.
"A letter, a voice, a picture means everything to a Soldier," said Daniel Cisneros. "That's what keeps a Soldier going, and that's what keeps the homefront looking for their return."
Babies half a world away
Perhaps nothing better signals the profound changes in communication than the use of email and Skype.
When Donna Tolin went into labor in July 2012, she wanted her husband, Capt. Jack Tolin, then assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, to be part of the process.
With a friend's iPhone, she connected with him through Skype. Another friend stood by with a camera to capture the moment.
"The doctor checked me, and it's time to start pushing. I said, 'I'm so sorry. I just have to get some lip gloss on. My husband is going to be watching on Skype … I want to look nice.' The doctor said, 'Never in my 20 years of delivering babies have I had to wait for a mother to put lip gloss on,'" she said, laughing.
Her husband was able to watch the entire event, even as the nurses intubated the 6-week-premature baby.
"It would've been better having him there, but it was the second best thing. He got to (see) the sights and (hear) the sounds and the conversations. It was like he was there," she said. "I was so grateful we even had that ability."
While the opportunity to witness a baby's birth is special, the experience can be difficult.
"It's almost torturous not being able to hold my wife's hand through it or hold my new baby boy, and to know I won't be able to for another nine months," wrote Pfc. Joel Detamore, Forward Support Company, 4th Engineer Battalion, from Afghanistan. His wife, Ali Detamore, gave birth
to the couple's fourth child in July.
The ability to communicate nearly instantaneously has a downside, though.
"In conversations, you can actually hear some of the rocket attacks," said Tara O'Crowley, whose husband, 1st Lt. Jeremiah O'Crowley, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 68th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 43rd Sustainment Brigade, is deployed to Afghanistan. "There's been a few times when he's had to get off (the internet) and go take cover."
When communication is so quick and easy, many couples choose to talk frequently.
"We talk every day," said Katherine Overfelt, whose husband, Spc. Jonathan Overfelt, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 4th Inf. Div., is in Afghanistan. "If I don't talk to him every day, I don't feel whole. It doesn't start my day off right."
But talking so often can lead to a lack of conversation topics.
"Sometimes it's just dead air, but … he said to me, 'I don't care that we don't talk. I love listening to the kids and hearing, just life, the normal everyday things,'" Tara O'Crowley said.
Whether the communication is frequent or sporadic, whether it's letters and packages or emails and Skype, it eases the pain of separation.
"Deployment stinks in every way, especially having to watch your child be born (on) a computer screen," Detamore wrote. "At the same time, though, I'm glad I can be a part of what allows my wife and children the freedom they have.
"One day my son will be able to look back at the pictures of me on Skype in the background and the video of me talking to him and know that me being absent from his birth was not in vain."