When 22-year-old Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty of Columbia, South Carolina, was killed in the Vietnam War in 1969, his body was recovered, but not before the North Vietnamese government confiscated letters he had written to his family but hadn't yet sent.
Now, 43 years after his death, the letters have finally made it home. Some of what Sgt. Flaherty described in the letters depict a brutal scene. He wrote, "It has been trying days for me and my men...we dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget."
And in a letter to his mother, the soldier gives his family hope for his safe return, writing "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." Unfortunately, Sgt. Flaherty never made it back home safely.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on a visit to Vietnam on Monday, was given Sgt. Flaherty's letters by the Vietnamese Defense Minister in exchange for a diary from a Vietnamese soldier that was taken by a U.S. Marine. This marked the first time that the U.S. and Vietnam had exchanged war artifacts.
Sgt. Flaherty's family says that Steve, a high school baseball star in his hometown, gave up an opportunity to try out for the Cincinnati Reds because he wanted to serve his country. His aunt Martha Gibbons said the letters brought to the surface emotions she had not felt in a long time, saying, "When I read them, I started sobbing. It almost put me on the battlefield with him."