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Associated Press
The personal letters of Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty, released by Hanoi, chronicle the carnage and exhaustion of the Vietnam War.

Hanoi cedes letters, allows MIA searches

– “If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I’m O.K. I was real lucky. I’ll write again soon.”

That poignant message never reached the mother of Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty. He was killed in Vietnam in 1969 before he could mail the letters he was carrying, including one he might have been writing when he died. The letters were taken by the Vietnamese after his death, U.S. officials said in releasing excerpts on Monday.

The letters, chronicling the carnage and exhaustion of war, were given to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in exchange for a Vietnamese soldier’s diary that was taken from his body by an American GI. The letters will be returned to Flaherty’s family in South Carolina.

Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh and Panetta made the exchange in a ceremony in which the Vietnamese also agreed to open three new sites in the country for excavation by the United States to search for troop remains from the war. Acidic soil in Vietnam erodes bones quickly, leaving in many cases only teeth for military teams to use to identify service members.

Ron Ward, U.S. casualty resolution specialist at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hanoi, said there are at least four U.S. soldiers believed to be lost in the three areas that are being opened. That leaves eight sites still restricted by the Vietnamese, he said.

Memories of the Vietnam War are fading for many Americans, and the war is the stuff of textbooks for others.

But it is brought vividly alive in Sgt. Flaherty’s letters.

The mail from the Columbia, S.C., native to his mother, Lois, and two women identified only as Mrs. Wyatt and Betty, offer emotional accounts of his fear – and also his determination.

“I felt bullets going past me,” Flaherty writes to Betty. “I have never been so scared in my life.”

“We took in lots of casualties and death,” he writes. “We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget.”

“Thank you for your sweet card. It made my miserable day a much better one but I don’t think I will ever forget the bloody fight we are having. ... RPG rockets and machine guns really tore my rucksack.”

By 1969, the war was sharply dividing Americans back home, but Flaherty tells Mrs. Wyatt he still believes in the mission.

“This is a dirty and cruel war but I’m sure people will understand the purpose of this war even though many of us might not agree,” he writes.

In another section of the letter to his mother, Flaherty reassures her that he will get some rest.

“I definitely will take R&R,” he wrote. “I don’t care where so long as I get a rest, which I need so badly, soon. I’ll let you know exact date.”

Flaherty, who was with the 101st Airborne, was killed in the northern section of South Vietnam in March 1969. It’s clear he saw some heavy combat.

“Our platoon started off with 35 men but winded up with 19 men when it was over,” he tells his mother. “We lost platoon leader and whole squad.”

Officials said parts of Flaherty’s letters were read in propaganda broadcasts by the Vietnamese during the war.

This is the first time such a joint exchange of war artifacts has occurred, they said.

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