On Patrol

Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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Our mail still hasn’t caught us. 

Sure wish I could hear from you. 

Want to be home very much. - Liuetenant E.C. Evans, France, 1944

His letters in next months revealed that ‘Jerry was on the move’ that he had been hospitalized, and that he was in love with a girl named Stephanie. It turns out the love of his life was his daughter, born long after he had been sent to war.

The letters he sent were censored, microfilmed, and sent home by boat as Victory Mail, or V-mails. The letters Evans received came in clusters, handed out at mail call as bags caught up with units on the move.

Even so, his connection with home was essentially the same as Airman Everman’s, stationed in Germany today, who received this from his wife: “My not-so-tiny baby’s (2 lbs and 14.5 in) central nervous system now regulates her body temperature, breathing, and butterfly-tummy-spasms of tiny hiccups…”

Everman’s daughter, however, hasn’t been born. He was reading his wife’s e-mail about that morning’s medical checkup while he viewed his unborn child’s sonogram at his workstation.

Family, distance, and longing are the bonds that connect loved ones in service with the home front. They are tied together by the implicit promises in letters that the soldier will come home where all is being preserved as it was when he left. Not only do these messages promise hope for the future, they promise the way of life to be resumed is the way of life that the soldier is serving to protect.

But, is there a difference in the age of instant messages?

Consider the thoughts in our most ancient letter home, written by Count Stephen in Antioch to his wife Adele, in France in 1098. “You may be very sure, dearest, that the messenger whom I sent to give you pleasure, left me before Antioch safe and unharmed.”

His 1,400-word letter could have been written from the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, assuring her of his safety, of success in battle, the arrival of reinforcements, of enemy tactics and strength, of  building fortresses, and the need for protection of roads.

Count Stephen concluded by saying, “…I charge you to do right, to carefully watch over your land, to do your duty as you ought to your children and your vassals. You will certainly see me just as soon as I possibly return to you.”

How different is this from instant messages, cell phones, and webcams? For the soldier, not much.

The sentiments are remarkably similar, the themes unbroken over a thousand years—“I’m fine, the countryside is foreign, the enemy is bad, my unit is a brotherhood, and I will come home.”

But for the family at home, the difference can be stark—war in real time.

Even in televised news of the Vietnam War, of Kosovo, and Desert Storm, rare was the broadcast in which someone at home saw someone they knew on the air. Now, wives and parents see their soldier or sailor in person—live—and in a menacing desert near an IED-laden road with the thunder of a forward operating base audible on their computer. 

The difference is more than sight and sound. For Adele in France, her letter arrived after a six-month journey by ship, horse, and cart. Lieutenant Evans’s V-mails took six weeks to arrive in 1944. Letters to Vietnam made it in a week. But by 2007, soldiers in Iraq were speaking to their families on Skype in real time, complete with video, almost every day.

The immediacy of such instant contact has unexpected consequences. Now a break of even one day in the established routine increases exponentially the dread of something having gone wrong. There’s an increased urgency of fear that now precedes what formerly was many weeks or months until the arrival of a telegram or of men in uniform appearing on the front porch.

Somewhat further down the emotional scale, it is undeniable that emails and texts are brief compared to the pages of hand-written letters of even a generation ago and, perhaps, devalued by frequency and quantity. There are only so many times one can say that he is fine, the kids are over the flu, or the PX has a new stock of DVDs, without struggling for more meaningful exchanges of news and needs.

Facebook, iPhones, and the unit computer shack may become the medium of disconnecting rather than bonding, of increased expectations instead of supportive reserve.

Whether from trench or living room it’s clear that a written paper letter says someone had the thoughtfulness to write, took the time to compose, and made the effort to put it in the mail.  

Dr. Frances Parton, organizer of the “Wives and Sweethearts” exhibit at the National Army Museum in London, England, said this about that, “I think there is something wonderfully reassuring and physical about a letter; it is something you can hold in your hand, you can read it in your own time and you can see your loved one’s hand writing and the kisses at the end of the letter.”

Even subconsciously, such letters are intended to mean more than a quick email. They can be shared, but not forwarded, re-read but not pasted onto social media, and kept in something more personal than a server.

The unfairly belittled snail mail is not real time, but it is permanent. It is the heart of being connected and the antithesis of the hurried and hasty instant message, which suggests contact of convenience. One can smell the paper for a trace of the writer’s essence, no small thing if the person who wrote it may not come home alive.

Whither then the ancient art of letters in the age of smart phones? Surely not, as the answer is not in the medium, but in the message.

Whether written on vellum or an iPad, messages of hope, longing, and the promise of the future are the coin of touching another human being. Texting, “lol gtg,” says there is little to say. One must touch another with thoughts, not emoticons. One must write, not merely type.

In the end, the thoughts in a letter like this last one, from Sergeant Cecil Turner in Tunisia, April 28, 1943, would mean as much to Lieutenant Evan’s family in an email today as Turner’s V-mail did almost 70 years ago when it was read at home by “Coney, Herman, and all.”

“Greetings from North Africa and a guy who thinks of you a whale of a lot….  Always remember me in your prayers and, the Lord willing, I will see you and we will take up life again.”

Take the time. Stay in touch. 

*Airman Everman’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.

 

Jack Woodville London is a graduate of the University of Texas Law School and a former captain in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. Today he is a trial attorney, World War II historian, and award-winning author of the French Letters series of World War II novels. He and his wife, Alice, live in Austin, Texas.