Dear John letters set off wild, erratic and dangerous behaviors and were among the most destructive explosive devices in Vietnam. A Dear John letter is one from a soldier’s soon-to-be ex-wife or girlfriend informing him that she has found a replacement and now sees him in her rear view mirror. His written response will take seven days to reach her, and if she promptly responds, it will be another seven days before he gets it. We had no phones to call for a more immediate exchange of information. Those 14 days are agony! Everyone better know who just got one and watch him very closely for behavior that can be dangerous to everyone in the unit, if he goes John Wayne – as if being a “hero” would cause her come “running” back. Many dangerous weapons of war were available to us, and a huge orgasm of explosions can feel like just the right thing to relieve some anguish and help him make some bad decisions. A wise commander can send the man to base camp where a long-distance phone is available and with good luck the soldier might be allowed to use it.
Men that made calls to their lost love seldom felt better after the call and became even more frustrated. No explanation from her will satisfy his question why. No answer will lessen his pain. The Army will not let him go home to “fix things,” which he couldn’t anyway, and this is the time he accepts the reality that he has no options and hope is gone. Looking this man in the eye and bluntly telling him he must accept this and move forward being a good soldier will help him get out of his hole, once this brutal truth is accepted. He is stuck here, and the 14-day round-trip letters only frustrate him. After accepting all of that, he still needs to let the pain out and big explosions can do wonders. We shot fire missions 24/7 (not every minute) that provided the noise and concussion of all the big explosions a man could desire.
The other “solace” – going John Wayne – meant performing crazy, stupid acts while under hostile fire. The classic movie scene is a man charging a machine gun. John Wayne acted out his heroic movie wonders in a studio, while ours were acted out under fire and played with bullets that killed and injured men for real! Being in the artillery, it was unlikely any of us would be charging a machine gun, but many other “heroic” acts were available and occasionally performed.
The more likely scenario, however, was the poor soul saying how lucky he was to be rid of her and then enjoying risky behavior such as playing in high-stakes card games. Yes! The first few days after payday, poker in a bunker was a popular sport, and it was a perfect place for Dear John to lose all his cash on crazy bets and go into debt on even crazier catch-up bets, all to prove to her what a stud he was and that she just lost out.
Despite the ill-fated poker games, also present were little “group therapy sessions” where he was reassured he was still a real stud, and the bitch didn’t deserve him. And then the typical “There are plenty of fish in the sea,” speech. To get him out this funk, they are going to be verbally blunt to him. It’s a male thing: when a guy is down, you make damn sure he knows it in order to help him face the bottom and start back up. Until he does that, it provides an ongoing one-act play of friends verbally “torturing” him to assist in his recovery.
With 24/7 hours on alert or shooting a howitzer with no restful sleep for weeks on end, she becomes a distant memory, and soon he can no longer even picture her in his mind or remember she had been a part of his life. The relentless demands on our time and physical demands of our work hypnotized everyone into a zombie-like state we Americans called the “1,000 yard stare,” and the French before us called the “cafard.”
The most creative and cold-blooded Dear John happened to a friend who met his wife of two years for six days of R&R in Hawaii. They dined at some of the most costly restaurants on Waikiki beach and spent money on side trips and costly clothing. She delivered him to his airplane departure back to Vietnam and there presented him with divorce papers, after having helped him spend a fortune in Hawaii. This wild spending spree jump-started his financial downfall during their last days together. Men spent all or most of the money they could put their hands on during their six days away from Vietnam anyway, so it took only a small nudge to set off excessive spending. All that said, he was a bit of an ass and may well have earned the dramatic, traumatic ending.
Note: It just so happened that items left to me by Randy Barnes, a veteran I became friends with after my return, included three Dear John letters. The first Dear John bombshell lands in the middle of her recounting of daily events and happenings. Why would a soldier who just received a Dear John letter give a shit about trivial stuff? Chances are pretty good he wouldn’t. It’s two people living in two extremely different realities – yet another Vietnam disconnect. Neither one could understand how the other’s life had changed. In this case, absence made the heart go wander.
Letter #1 Received 1/15/69: Oh, By the Way…
Got your letter and picture. You have lost weight! Yes, your letter was very descriptive.
Tom called last week (Wed. nite) and said he was coming in Thur. So fine. We were going to go to dinner. He called about 11:00 Thur. and said his plane was late. So I didn’t get a chance to see him. He said he wrote you and your friend, Adam, was supposed to mail the letter. Did you get it? He really wants you to write and wonders why you haven’t. Could you please send me his address? I have received two tickets that he got the day I lent him the car to go w/ his kids.
There is a reason why I haven’t written much, Randy. I have met someone now who is very important to me. Before you left, I think you realized that things weren’t going very well for us. I don’t want you to think that just because you’re not here, “that its out of sight, out of mind.” After we started arguing so much, I really couldn’t take it. And I feel that we really weren’t meant for each other.
School and everything else here is fine. Beth is pregnant and both she and Scott are all excited about it.
Saw two more good movies “Elvira Madigan” and “Two of Us.” I’ve become a real show fiend.
Well, we have a new Pres. Yea! for the U.S.A.
Got to hit the sack.
Letter #2 Received 2/19/69: Just Saying…
I have been thinking about you and how to write this letter ever since I got your letter. I really couldn’t believe that you thought I was being cruel because that was the furthest thing from my mind. I really didn’t realize that you had such strong feelings about our relationship. If I had known that, I don’t think I would have been “so cruel.” I really don’t know what to say to you. I think it would be more cruel to you not to say anything and let you be in shock when you got home. I am very serious about this boy and I really feel you must know. I am not doing this to hurt you.
What does one say? I can’t stop my feelings and what is happening to me here. I naturally want to be friends with you but I don’t know how you feel about that. In other words if we continue to write, it would naturally be under different circumstances. Really Randy, this is so difficult trying to explain how things are, how I feel, how I felt before you left, our relationship, everything. I just don’t think its possible for you to understand through a letter. I can’t stop you from thinking that I’m cruel, and thoughtless and insensitive. I never meant to be any of these things. You must understand my position and know that it is very hard for me to write this letter. I really don’t know what else to say.
I suppose you’ll be taking your leave soon. Where and when are you going?
Things aren’t all that great here. Riots and no resolutions on college campus’ it seems everywhere.
School is ok. I’m feeling more like a teacher all the time – is that good?
Reading Brave New World & Revisited – really good. I see what you mean about Huxley.
PS Got that bracelet – very pretty – Thank you mucho.
Letter #3 Received 5/22/69: What Should I Do With Your Sweaters?
How is everything in Vietnam? Swinging, I suppose.
I’m getting ready to move (2 weeks to be exact – June 7) and I’ve got your uniform and 2 sweaters. Would you like me to send them home or maybe keep them some other place? (the base? or what ever).
I don’t know if you knew, but I will be getting married in June. So……. Can’t really keep these things for you.
Please let me know right away, Randy.
There’s nothing really to say. I’m sure your not interested in my love life. I can’t see lying to you about it.
Let me know about the clothes,