The Things They Wrote: The Just-In-Case Letters Home from Fallen Soldiers

New York Times

November 11, 2004


The Things They Wrote

A year ago the Op-Ed page marked Veterans Day by publishing excerpts from letters written home by soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq. At the time, fewer than 400 Americans had died in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This year Veterans Day takes place during the battle for the Iraqi city of Falluja, where at least 11 Americans have been killed this week. Since the beginning of the war, the number of American dead in Iraq, according to the Pentagon, stands at 1,149. Thousands more have been wounded.

Below are passages from letters sent this year by men and women, now dead, to their families in the United States.

Excerpts from letters to his parents from Pfc. Moisés A. Langhorst of the Marines. Private Langhorst, 19, of Moose Lake, Minn., was killed in Al Anbar Province on April 6 by small-arms fire.

March 13

As far as my psychological health, we look out for each other pretty well on that. … I’ve been praying a lot and I hope you’re praying for the Dirty 3rd Platoon, because there is no doubt that we are in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

March 15

After standing in the guard tower for seven-and-a-half hours this morning, we went on our first platoon-size patrol from about 1200 to 1700. It was exhausting, but it went very well. I had to carry the patrol pack with emergency chow, a poncho and night vision goggles. That’s what really wore me out.

We toured the mosques and visited the troublesome abandoned train station. The people were friendly, and flocks of children followed us everywhere.

When I called you asked me if Iraq is what I expected, and it really is. It looks just like it does on the news. It hardly feels like a war, though. Compared to the wars of the past, this is nothing. We’re not standing on line in the open – facing German machine guns like the Marines at Belleau Wood or trying to wade ashore in chest-deep water at Tarawa. We’re not facing hordes of screaming men at the frozen Chosun Reservoir in Korea or the clever ambushes of Vietcong. We deal with potshots and I.E.D.’s. With modern medicine my chances of dying are slim to none and my chances of going home unscathed are better than half. Fewer than 10 men in my company have fired their weapons in the 10 days we’ve been here.

March 24

While not always pleasant, I know this experience is good for me. It makes me appreciate every little blessing God gives me, especially the family, friends and home I left behind in Moose Lake.

Excerpt from an e-mail message to her cousin on his wedding day from Sgt. First Class Linda Ann Tarango-Griess of the Army. Sergeant Tarango-Griess, 33, of Sutton, Neb., was killed on July 11 in Samarra by an improvised explosive device.

May 14

So today is your big day? Wow! It seems like just yesterday that I was making you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Malt-O-Meal. We experienced a lot together as we grew up and for the life of me, I can’t think of a time that you and I never got along. IS THAT NORMAL?

I never thought I would see the day that you settle down and get married, but here you are. You couldn’t have picked a more wonderful person than Rachel. She is very sweet, very giving and most important, she loves you. Be good to her. I am sorry I can’t be there to share in your day, but here I am in hopes that one day, these people will have the chance to be as happy as you. Just know that I AM with you … just close your eyes, place your hands on your heart, and you will feel me there.

Excerpts from letters to his 2-year-old son and his wife from Sgt. Christopher Potts of the Army. Sergeant Potts, 38, of Tiverton, R.I., was killed on Oct. 3 in Taji by small-arms fire.


Hi my big guy. How are you? I miss you bad. I miss things like you calling for me in the morning when you hear me in the kitchen, or when you come home at the end of the day. I also miss cooking for you and Mom. But most of all I miss your big hugs. I enjoy hearing your voice on the phone and seeing the pictures you draw for me. I’m sorry for not writing you till now. But the days are very long here, and we only get about four-and-a-half hours sleep a night. I got up a little early to write this because I know you need your own letter too.

March 18

Hi my love. Well, where should I start? First we left Kuwait after being issued a combat load of ammo – M-16 ammo, grenades, smoke grenades, grenade-launcher ammo and C-4. I knew that night that this is for real. Some people paced, some people slept, some of us had to write the just-in-case letters, some just sat. The letter-writing was a real hard thing to do, it definitely makes you aware of the situation and your life. But you’ll never have to read it – unless you want to when I get home. It’s weird because I’m not afraid of what might happen, or the pain of it. I’m just afraid of not being able to see you again.

The first leg of the trip through the desert was really bad. There were children of all ages from God knows where begging for food and water. The dust was blowing all over them, and some had torn outgrown clothes, and some were barefoot. I looked over at my driver and we were both crying after a few miles. I said to him, You know, this is why I’m here, so that my kids won’t ever have to live like that. Then we just drove in silence for a while.

As we got closer to Baghdad you could see blown-up military equipment, ours and theirs. People were on the side of the road selling gasoline out of plastic jugs. There was diesel and fuel spilled everywhere … then you’d see some slaughtered lambs on the side of the road. The meat is hanging out in the sun and dirt and germ-infested air. Farther down the road there were people bathing and washing up. Other people were picking through garbage.

I hope today I can call. I miss you so much that as I write this part my eyes are running. The TV in the mess hall said you got snow yesterday. I wish I was there to shovel. I hope you are being taken care of.

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