Letters written by an Army sergeant who lost his life in Vietnam are finally being sent home … 43 years after the young soldier was buried.
Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty of Columbia was killed in 1969, aged just 22 years old, during a battle in South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.
U.S. soldiers were unable to immediately recover his body, giving the North Vietnamese time to loot Flaherty’s possessions, including his unsent letters. The private mail was later used as propaganda by the North Vietnamese, who quoted horrifying passages from the correspondence such as:
“It has been trying days for me and my men. We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget.”
Finally, however, Flaherty’s letters are coming home. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (above) visited the now-reunited Vietnam on Monday, where he exchanged a diary taken from a slain North Vietnamese soldier by a Marine for four unsent letters that Flaherty had written. The U.S. and Vietnam are aiming to consolidate a much warmer relationship nowadays, and this was the first exchange of war artifacts between the two countries.
Back home in South Carolina, from where Flaherty hails, the letters have had an understandably huge impact. The late soldier’s aunt, Martha Gibbons of Irmo, South Carolina, said Monday:
“When I read them, I started sobbing. It almost put me on the battlefield with him. [...] He said he felt obligated to serve his country because it had given him a home.”
Flaherty’s uncle, Kenneth Cannon, a Navy veteran, added:
“It’s a senseless loss of life. A lot of good lives were wasted in the war in Vietnam to serve no purpose. He didn’t deserve that.”
Flaherty, who was a member of the 101st Airborne Division, addressed some of the returned mail to his mother, who along with his father and only brother are deceased. Other letters in the returned bundle were (not) sent to “Betty” and “Mrs. Wyatt,” names that are not recognized by Flaherty’s surviving relatives. In his correspondence to Betty, the young soldier write:
“I felt bullets going past me. I have never been so scared in my life.”
And to Mrs. Wyatt:
“Our platoon leader was killed and I was the temporary platoon leader until we got the replacement. Nothing seems to go well for us but we’ll take that ridge line.”