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In their own words: Last Letters

Published May 28, 2007 3:41 am

The legacy of Utah's fallen soldiers survives in their letters, e-mails and journal entries
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The letter ended with a promise that more would follow: "I will start a new letter tomorrow," John Daren Smith wrote to his wife, Meredith. "I love you and I can't wait to be with you again. I will try and send some film to you next week just so you can see where/how I am living."

He signed it, "Love forever, Daren," and, before folding it into an envelope with several others, added a practical postscript: "Things I could use: Oxy face cleaning pads."



For those killed at war, sometimes the final letter home is intended as such -- an "if you're reading this, something went wrong" message that bears a final wish, a last blessing or a personal creed. For others, like Smith -- a Taylorsville native who died Feb. 25, 2003, when his helicopter crashed in Kuwait's northern desert -- the final letter is simply the last a soldier writes. Those letters, too, can be compelling and revealing.

In e-mails, blogs, instant messages, journals and in old-fashioned, longhand "snail mail," the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be the most written-about conflicts in human history -- from the perspective of those most directly involved.

And for the fallen, that allows for a lasting legacy: words of comfort, of love, of humor, of fear and of beauty.

"I watched a beautiful orange full moon rise tonight and thought of how cool you would think it was," Smith wrote to his youngest daughter, Madeline, who was 4 years old when her father became the first Utahn killed in the buildup for the invasion of Iraq.

"I am sorry that my job takes me so far away from you," Smith wrote to his eldest, Kiara, who was 8, "but I know that what I am doing will make the world safer for my friends and family."

Meredith Smith keeps the letters in a box in her closet. And she doesn't read them much anymore.

"It just brings him back," she says. "It's part of him. And sometimes it's just way too painful. I get resentful that he's no longer here."

But every once in a while, and especially when she fears she's beginning to forget how much her husband cared for her, Meredith Smith opens the closet and re-enters the world she lost to war.

"When I need to remember him, when I get foggy, when I forget how I felt, I can pull the letters out and remember," she says.

* * *

"Well my love, if you are reading this letter, something has happened to me," Gregson Gourley wrote to his wife, Collette, on Feb. 27, 2003, just weeks before he crossed the Kuwait border as part of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. "First and foremost honey I want to tell you how much I love and adore you."

Gourley survived his first tour of duty in Iraq. Unable to keep a secret from his wife, he showed her the letter, which he had given to his mother to keep while he was away.

Collette Gourley didn't know such a letter existed.

"I cried," she said. "I'd never doubted that he would come home. I think we both felt that way."

Collette Gourley said her husband didn't have the same sense of confidence when he left for his second tour of duty in Iraq. "He had a feeling that he wasn't coming back," she said.

But Gregson Gourley didn't pen another "if you are reading this" letter. Perhaps he simply didn't want to keep another secret. Perhaps he had concluded, as many soldiers do, that writing such letters is bad luck.

The career soldier from Midvale died Feb. 22, 2006, in Hawijah, Iraq, when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb.

"Please explain to the boys that I tried to be a good father and that I will always love them and I will always be proud of them," Gregson Gourley wrote in 2003. (His wife gave birth to a baby girl shortly before his second deployment.) "Please never let them forget who their dad is."

* * *

"Hey pop wuz up?" young soldier Michael Lehmiller wrote to his father a few weeks before the Iraqi invasion, a time when many service members believed they would be met by an Iraqi Army equipped with chemical and biological weapons. "Well we are getting ready to go and I can't say where or when but I can say it don't look good. They are talking about a lot of casualties and most of us may not come home.

"Don't worry cause I'll be the one coming home and if by chance I don't I know it's for the right reason. We must do this."

In the two and a half years that followed, he grew used to fighting. He survived his first tour of duty in Iraq, then deployed to Afghanistan in the summer of 2005.

The 23-year-old Clearfield native died Aug. 21, 2005, in a roadside bomb attack in Baylough, Afghanistan.

Robert Lehmiller says his son never doubted and seldom feared. "He was unwavering in the belief that he was invincible," the elder Lehmiller said. "His patriotism and belief in what he was doing was incredible."

Responding to a letter from his younger brother, William, Michael Lehmiller wrote that "war is hard but we will not lose . . .

"Don't worry about me getting hurt 'cause I wear a vest that can stop bullets and I carry a really big gun to protect myself," he continued. "Well I have to go. Be good for mom and dad and get good grades in school for me. Airborne all the way."

* * *

"Don't worry about me," Brandon Thomas wrote to his mother on March 15, 2005. "If it's my time to go, then I have no worries as to where I'm going. I know that the Lord will protect me from the enemy. Write me back when you can."

Carol Thomas Young takes solace in the thought that her son, who died in a bomb attack on May 7, 2005, in Baghdad, maintained a deep and abiding belief in God.

Her son's letters confirm that, she says, and give a small window into his life as a security contractor in Iraq. "It's baptism by fire here," he wrote. "Pretty exciting so far. Looks like it's just getting worse. But these guys are great. Full of common sense also. Which will keep you alive."

Technology has been good to Thomas' legacy. His mother has thick stacks of e-mails and printouts of instant message conversations with her son.

But digital communication also can be precarious. Debbie Weiner said the e-mails she exchanged with her husband, Timothy, disappeared from her inbox shortly after he was killed on Jan. 7 in Baghdad.

"He called, rather than wrote a lot of e-mails, so we really didn't have a lot to begin with," Debbie Weiner says.

She has a message for those with loved ones at war: Keep everything you have. Print it out. "Hold it close."

Jody Wood, whose son Ronald was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, on July 16, 2005, says even the shortest, most insignificant letters written by her son have come to mean a great deal to his grieving families.

"Generally speaking, Ronnie's e-mail messages were just neutral comments about what he was doing," she says.

But Jody Wood noted that her son always made sure to sign off by saying, "I love you."

At the time, those were simply his words.

Now, they are his legacy.

mlaplante@sltrib.com

 

 

 

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