22 February 2012

The Letters We Carried

In the past, the Red Bull Rising blog has often encouraged readers to write, archive, or share letters related to their family's military service: To record their family's deployment experiences, for example, or to illuminate the life and times of a beloved family member.

Even in the ephemeral Age of the Internet, a letter is a practical chance of concrete immortality. After all, they represent our plans, our dreams, and the values we hope to pass on to new generations.

Daniel Gade, a 15-year U.S. Army officer, has started an effort titled "In the Event of My Death: Real Letters Home from Iraq and Afghanistan." He proposes to collect and publish 30 to 50 or letters that service members have written to their loved ones, to be opened in the event they don't come home.

As Gade recently explained at Garry Trudeau's/Dooonesbury's "The Sandbox" mil-blog digest:
Before I was deployed to Iraq in 2004, I wrote a letter to my wife, Wendy, to be opened only ‘In the Event of My Death’. In it, I expressed my love and admiration for her, my gratitude for our life together, and my fondest hopes for her future with our daughter. In the summer of 2011, while we were moving to West Point, I discovered the letter in a binder and allowed her to read it–her reaction to the letter is where this book idea came from.

I began to contemplate the hundreds of thousands of Soldiers, Marines, and other service members who have written this kind of letter to their families, and the sacrifices of all of those spouses and children during repeated long deployments. Whether the service member is wounded, killed, or comes home unscathed: he or she has sacrificed greatly, and his or her family has as well. Too often, these sacrifices are unsung.
Gade plans to donate any proceeds from the project to charities that benefit military families. Readers can submit their own letters to Gade via e-mail: daniel.m.gade AT gmail.com; or via postal mail: 3357 East Continental Road, West Point, New York 10996. Those making submissions can request anonymity.

For more information, visit the project's blog page here.

A personal story:

When I was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in 2010, the thought of writing an "in the event of" letter seemed self-involved and overly dramatic. I was deploying overseas, but my Army job overseas wasn't likely to bring me into contact with bombs or bad guys. Besides, unlike the "taking care of business" mentality surrounding our estate plans, I worried that my wife would find a sealed envelope unnecessarily morbid or maudlin.

Still, I'm a journalist. Among newspaper reporters, writing your own obituary or last opinion column is a long-standing and celebrated tradition. Journalists love getting in the last word, particularly in print.

So I cheated. I wrote my own version of the letter. I wrote it to my daughter, and tried to use language a 5-year-old would understand. The message, however, was really intended for my family sometime in the future–a time at which I might not be around to remind them why I went, and what we meant to each other.

Then, I hid it in plain sight—like that old Edgar Allen Poe mystery story about the "Purloined Letter." Rather than put it on the hearth, or in the family's safe-deposit box, I did what any 21st century, post-newspaper journalist would do:

I hid it on the Internet.

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