GILLETTE — 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 State’s 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.
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.
“Denny,” who was Olsen’s closest friend in the military and remained a lifelong friend afterward, was Dennis Ridout. They entered basic training together after each graduated from separate colleges with, coincidentally, the same major and minor degrees. As fate would have it, they were both assigned to the same company in Vietnam. The 552nd Military Police.
“Ho,” of course, was Ho Chi Minh. Olsen wrote of the Vietnamese-revolutionary-turned-president’s birthday in one letter and about his death in another.
Olsen was in Vietnam, stationed on the II Corp Toc compound, from mid-March through early December 1969. He was not an infantryman and did not see much direct combat, but his early letters describe the dangers that were still there.
“About a week ago, two (military policemen) on highway patrol stopped a two and a half ton truck with two (U.S. Army soldiers) inside. As they walked up to the truck, one of the (soldiers) grabbed a grenade to throw it at the MPs but somehow he didn’t get it out of the truck before it went off and it killed both of them.”
“Shrapnel hit one MP in the head and he had six hours of brain surgery and is still paralyzed on one side. The other MP was also hit in the head but wasn’t seriously hurt. Damn frustrating when your own buddies, GIs, do it. Actually we have more to worry about from situations like that than we do from Charlie.”
— An excerpt from a letter Olsen wrote May 31, 1969.
It’s unclear exactly what happened or why the Army men attacked the military policemen, Olsen said. But the grenade hit a metal rail, bounced back into the truck and killed the two soldiers who threw it.
In hindsight, that may have been more information than his parents needed at the time.
“I do remember thinking later, ‘I wonder if I should have told them that,’” he said.
Olsen’s father fought in World War II, a veteran in his own right. Olsen remembers the day he went off to Vietnam, escorted by his father onto the tarmac and into the plane. He remembers saying goodbye to his father, and his father, with tears in his eyes, returning the farewell. In his last words to his father before leaving U.S. soil, Olsen promised a safe return.
Although his father knew the King’s English well, his mother was the real letter writer. In tiny script, she would fill yellow legal pad pages with multi-day accounts of life back home. On Thursday she did this. On Friday Olsen’s father did that. On Sunday his sister did something else. Sign, sealed and shipped to the other side of the world. A concise day-by-day report in idiosyncratic handwriting.
Those letters were lost a long time ago. He didn’t clutch onto the letters his mother sent as tightly as she held onto his.
As he spent more time in Vietnam, a certain sense of frustration showed through his correspondence home.
“I see Nixon is going to pull out 25,000 troops by August. I wish I could say that this was a move in the direction for peace but we have yet to see the day the (North Vietnamese Army) and Vietcong will be searching in this direction. If our country has the patience to continue as it has, then in five years we may have found some desirable ends. If not, we better get in here, and get it over or get the hell out. As for myself, I really don’t care which of the three we might choose, however it irritates me that after eight years here we still don’t have such a policy. Oh well, I give up on this place.
“Of course, I’m not exactly writing that much myself so can’t do any complaining. Actually having become fairly well adjusted to this place. It’s pretty hard to write anything of interest. Most every day is the same as the next and they are about as boring as this letter. Let’s just say as long as I’m smoking, joking and drinking beer at night, that life isn’t totally unbearable.”
— An excerpt from a letter Olsen wrote, dated June 1969.
Reading through the letters from his past brought some names, faces and images to mind for the first time in years. Accompanying stories from the war flowed out of Olsen between sips of coffee and reciting bits from the old letters.
Sometimes he wrote about the tropical weather patterns and sometimes he wrote about the monotonous existence of a drafted soldier. Some letters had thoughts on both.
“The rain has been starting each day about noon and is then on and off again all day. Come morning the sun is back up and it starts all over again … Payday just came. Don’t know if I’ll send any money home this month or not, a few things I may get such as a camera. So probably will wait and see how things go … and I also want to buy a tape recorder.
“The last month has really been quiet around here as of now. Charlie is supposed to be understrength manpower-wise though we are wary of perhaps a summer offense such as they had last year (Tet Offensive) ... It has really been hard to write lately. In fact, at this moment, I don’t really feel like doing so except out of responsibility. I don’t know. It’s just such a dismal situation, dismal place, it’s hard to be able to say anything in words. I very seldom think about anything in relation to the world. There just isn’t anything here that can be related to the world.
“Life consists of eating, sleeping, working and hoping that someday you don’t lose your sanity. My existence can probably best be described as getting by the best I can and to find whatever happiness and release of emotions are still within the boundaries of intelligence and good common sense. As far as I personally am doing, I am very boringly doing very, very well. So indeed I am fortunate for so many things that I cannot begin to put them on paper. For now, I’m sorry I’m not writing more frequently but I’m doing the best I can and I very definitely look forward to the letters from home.”
— An excerpt from a letter Olsen wrote, dated July 1, 1969.
Letters are often written when there is nothing else to do. Those also happen to be the moments when nothing seems to matter. Not every moment was like that, but enough of them were.
Olsen was a few months into his time in Vietnam, still in the malaise of the jungle.
“I must have been in a funk at that time,” he said. “It wasn’t always like that, but sometimes it hits you.”
Whatever funk he was in didn’t last long. It also didn’t follow him back from Vietnam as bad as it did many others he served with. By the second half of his deployment, he could see the end in sight.
“For some time I’ve been aware of a possible change in my duty status but have failed to make any mention of it for a variety of reasons. First of all, the Army is always subject to change so I want to avoid any undue anxiety. Another is that I was unable to actually believe it to ever come about. And another important reason is that I had envisioned the possibility of presenting it all in one big surprise.”
— An excerpt from a letter Olsen wrote, dated Oct. 30, 1969.
Olsen was in Vietnam when then-President Richard Nixon ordered the withdrawal of the first 25,000 U.S. troops in the summer of 1969. The war in Vietnam had become more and more unpopular stateside. Dispatches from the television and radio broadcasts painted growing animosity in American politics and culture. He said he and other soldiers openly wondered if they weren’t safer in Vietnam than they would be in the U.S.
But he jumped at the opportunity to finish out the rest of his service stateside when it finally presented.
“My orders did come down, my next duty assignment is in Fort Wolters, Texas.”
“Now I hope that no one is going to get all hot and bothered about my getting back as I really haven’t changed all that much. I will probably be just as ornery and irresponsible as I have always been. However, I’m really looking forward to seeing the whole family again, drink civilian beer, living off the old man’s pocketbook, chasing girls or whatever they are and just general messing off. Somehow I just don’t think I’m going to know how to act.”
— An excerpt from a letter Olsen wrote, dated Nov. 8, 1969.
There may have been other letters he wrote, but the ones laid in front of him last week, the ones his mother kept safe all these years, are some of the most personal accounts of his time overseas. Reading his past thoughts, he said it’s hard to imagine where those 52 years since went.
In that time he went back to school, where he met and married his wife, Sandy. Together they raised a family and settled down in Gillette, where he was a longtie educator and principal. Sandy knew about the letters as long as Olsen did. Now that he has read them, she sees the effect that kind of nostalgia trip has on him.
“It just has brought up so many memories and feelings,” she said. “These guys came back and there was no fanfare, they left Vietnam and it was dropped. There was nothing. I think a lot of them just went into their lives.”
When he thinks of his time in Vietnam, he thinks of “life on hold.”
For two years, he knew he had to pause the future he planned outside of the military. It proved to be the right mindset. He came back to South Dakota and more or less picked up where he left off.
Infantrymen had it worse than his time mostly spent on the compound. The frontlines were blurred in Vietnam in a way that differed from other U.S. wars before it. There was a constant, and warranted, sense of caution. Soldiers walked the line between justified fear and paranoia. They coped with the stressors of war however they could. It took a toll on many minds.
Olsen is able to open a letter and remember those times. But more importantly, he has the privilege of closing those letters and returning to the present.
Inside of each one he can see and hear Vietnam. Outside of each one, he returns to the life he built in the country he can proudly say he fought for.