Vietnam vet reflects on his time there through letters home

| November 16, 2021

Every couple years I dig out the letters I sent home. I have yet to read them. I’ll probably explore them with my children when they’re old enough to understand. It’s an important part of military service though. As an amateur military historian, I’ve read lots of letters from the front. They really provide a lot of perspective on what life in the military at that moment in time and place was really like.

More than 50 years ago, Dave Olsen was a young Army GI, serving in Vietnam. He sent letters home to his mom. She kept them. When she passed, he found them. He too had a hard time opening them, but he’s doing it now.

Jeff LPH 3 sends in this Military Times article;

Army veteran Dave Olsen found them 26 years ago.

He recognized them immediately while going through his mother’s belongings after she died. That was in 1995.

The sight alone took him 25 years into the past. Back to 1969. He never knew, or even suspected, that she had kept them.

But there they were.

The faded white envelopes with “free” written in lieu of a stamp were unmistakable. Almost a dozen letters a 24-year-old version of himself mailed across the world from war-torn Vietnam to small town South Dakota stood preserved, legible as the day he first wrote them.

He just never opened them all.

Until last week.

“I knew what they were,” said Olsen, 76, with the letters laid in front of him in his Gillette home on Friday.

“I read a couple of them and I … I just couldn’t get into it,” he said, trailing off.

Many men lucky enough to return from Vietnam carried the hard times of one of the United States’ most controversial wars home with them. But that wasn’t exactly the issue with Olsen. It wasn’t the memories of the heat, or the monsoons, or the fear, or the unforgettable smell that made it hard to read line by line through the thoughts of his younger self, the Gillette News Record reports.

It was the thought of who had read them before him. Who they were addressed to. The same loved one who held onto them for 25 years.

“As I read the letters, I would think of her,” Olsen said of his late mother.

More than 50 years removed from his time in Vietnam and 25 years since he last saw his mother, he finally took the time to open each envelope, unfurl each folded parcel and remember the time when his life was on hold.

The letters tell a story that may be familiar to veterans of all wars and the loved ones they wrote home to. There were good times and bad. Words that spoke of boredom and others that spoke of fear. Hopes of returning stateside and frustration at the uncertainties of deployment.

Thoughts and feelings from 50 years ago can easily be warped by memory. His letters may not tell the full story of his time in Vietnam, but they open windows into a pivotal moment for a generation of Americans.

“Dear family, I have been very irresponsible lately and Denny and I have spent the last few evenings good-timing so I’ll get this written on my lunch break. Life has been pretty quiet since Ho’s birthday.”

— An excerpt from a letter Olsen wrote, dated May 31, 1969.

There is lots, lots more at the source.


Category: Historical, Vietnam, We Remember

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Veritas Omnia Vincit

Very interesting perspective, our past words coming back to remind us of other places, other times, and who we were once upon a long ago….

Great read, thanks Mason.


While I disagree with his romantic notions of the Civil War I love the letters in Shelby Foote’s works.


“The faded white envelopes with “free” written in lieu of a stamp were unmistakable”

That right there has me all welled up.


Powerful stuff. Don’t know why it got so dusty in here. I changed the air filters the other day and pollen season is over. Must have a new crop of dust bunnies under the bed.

Thanks Mason/Jeff


My wife has every letter I wrote her, I read them a few years ago and scanned them into the computer where they will probably never be found. Most of the letters from Vietnam were me bitching about one thing or another, the rain, another patrol, rain, another ambush, rain, no mailbag on the chopper today, rain! I still hate being out in the rain and hate being wet unless I’m in the shower or the pool.


I was single during my time in the Viet of the Nam, so my letters home went to my parents. I didn’t write often enough because It was difficult to find time to do it. As a rifle company commander, doing my job to the best of my ability was my primary focus, plus, my pad of paper was sometimes wet. Humping a ruck and a rifle all day in the jungle, digging prone shelters, working out your patrol plans for the next day, communicating, navigating, planning defensive fires, shooting in defensive targets, and listening to an insane battalion commander chew your ass at 11:00 to midnight on the KY-38 didn’t leave much time for letter writing. In the bush, I also didn’t have a “lunch break.” When it was convenient, we stopped moving for 20 minutes or so, and some of my guys ate part of a C-rat. All this caused my not writing home for about three months; this caused my father to write me that he was going to write my battalion commander if I didn’t write home soon. Thus, I found the time to scribble a short note every week thereafter. I didn’t need another reason for that insane a-hole LTC to chew my ass over stuff that wasn’t mission important or relevant. Thankfully, he was relieved for incompetence after only about three months in command. (Note: Both his predecessor and successor were superb officers.)

P.S., Chulai, after I came home, I swore I was neve going camping again. But then my next assignment required humping a rifle and a ruck occasionally in the woods. I even drug my soon to be wife on a campout for a few nights on a road trip to Canada.


” an insane battalion commander”

I got a stupid one. Had 3 or 4 (or so they tell me) but never saw any of them.


I had to deal with the insane one practically daily. He once flew into and old abandoned firebase we were using as a company patrol base; he chewed my ass for ten minutes because he found a C-rat spoon on the ground in a portion of the base that we weren’t even using. The plastic spoon could have been there for many months before we showed up.

The entire six years I was on AD I only received one bad OER, I bet you can guess who wrote it.


“…after I came home, I swore I was neve going camping again.”

That made ol’ Poe chuckle, Counselor. Miz Poe and I were married ten months after my return from ‘Nam and we have been camping exactly once in those 54 years. That came about three years into our marriage at the urging of another college student couple.

At the end of that weekend, young Poe told his sweetie that was it: with six years as an infantryman, he’d had enough sleeping in the woods to last a lifetime. And other than sleeping aboard anchored sailboats several times, that was the last night Poe spent under the stars.

Also shared your battalion commander experience but ours was more of a Jekyll-Hyde type, a tough as nails veteran of WWII and Korea who was a good leader when he was sober. But he turned into a mean, raging drunk when he drank, and he drank prodigiously when were in our base camp at Tuy Hoa.

Being on his staff, young Poe witnessed a lot of abuse of his staff NCO’s and subordinate officers, actually unjustifiably relieving one young Ringknocker, which probably ruined his promising career while the drunk went on to make O-6.

His bad behavior sadly added an additional layer of stress to an already stressful experience for too many good men.


What was really insane is that in 1990 I became a Civil War cavalry reenactor. So for about another 12 years I periodically slept on a pile of hay on the ground with a couple of blankets and a poncho with my saddle for a pillow. One never slept well; and you usually had to pull a couple of hours of horse watch over the picket line at night. I must be masochist.


My period of sleeping on sailboats lasted for about a dozen years as well, and I can promise you, a cramped, stuffy sailboat berth is better any time than a blanket and poncho on the ground…😎


rgr769, I was not married at the time either, Welcome Home.


Thanks. Same to you. I was in the Americal at Chulai after reassignment from the 4th ID in Dec. 1970. I was in 3/21st Inf. and G/75th from Dec.70 to Oct. 71.


Some days during the Monsoon season it rained like a cow pissing on a flat rock.


Oh, yeah. Between the monsoons and the typhoons there was a great deal of precipitation. And flooding. The good news was that in the mountains you didn’t need to hump water; you just drank it as it flowed down the tree trunks like a waterfall. Rainwater is also good for your hair, making it soft and shiny. The bad news was that in the mountains you didn’t get any air support–no resupply, no medevac, etc. And it also promotes immersion foot, which is also a good news/bad news thing, the good news being that you can get out of the field as soon as a helicopter can make it see previous sentence).


A short personal. After my mother died in 2004, I found in her papers one letter from Vietnam. I remember writing it, a few minutes after reading one from her: “We haven’t heard from you in quite a while, but we figured if something happened to you the army would let us know.”


I was in the Marine Corps but ended up in an Army hospital in Cam Ranh Bay, the Marine Corps had no idea where I was because I had gone straight from the R&R plane to either the Navy B or C medical. They kept me a couple days, got my temp down and then sent me south along with three others. By that time my letters home had become fewer and further between anyway but any mail my family or future wife sent was returned to them marked Whereabouts Unknown.
A little side note about getting checked in, an Army doctor who I want to say was a colonel asked me if I was US and me being a Marine and unfamiliar with the term in the way he meant it I replied, what the fuck do I look like, a gook. I think if I hadn’t been so damn sick he might not have been so nice about it.


Obviously, the doc, thinking you were Army, was trying to determine if you were drafted, US, or enlisted, RA. But I love your response.


He probably thought I was the dumbest person he’d ever met (and he might have been right) but he asked if I was an enlisted or draftee and everything became clear.