Their Last Letters Home

Posted on Mon, Jan. 03, 2005

BY SHIA KAPOS

Chicago Tribune

The letters can be as dry as the desert dust that still covers them and as bright and powerful as a rocket streaking across the Iraqi sky.

Most are written in chicken-scratch penmanship, with misspelled words and blotchy pen marks, but they are rich in spirit, full of thoughts about philosophy and beauty and love.

And they are cherished by the writers’ families. They are the last letters home_the final messages from American troops killed in the Iraq war.

Some of the letters arrived before the families knew that their loved ones had died. Some arrived afterward. Some were found with the soldiers’ personal effects.

Marine Capt. Ryan Beaupre, 30, of St. Anne, Ill., wrote his letter intending that it be read only in the event of his death. On March 20, 2003, nine days after composing it, he was killed in a helicopter crash in Kuwait in the first few hours of the war.

“I could not have asked for better parents or a better family,” Beaupre wrote to his parents, Nicky and Mark. “I’ll never forget that one of my friends in elementary school said that if he could trade places with one person he’d trade places with me because of my parents and home life. I truly feel I’ve had a blessed life thanks to you two.”

Most letters were written without the knowledge they would be the last words sent home. As a result, they focus on the mundane tasks of military life, offering reassurances that everything is fine and the future will be bright when they return.

“I’m enclosing info on (shaver) replacements if you guys could send me some more,” Staff Sgt. Lincoln Hollinsaid, 27, wrote to his mom, Nancy, of Malden, Ill., in a letter she received four days after his April 7, 2003, death. He was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in Baghdad.

“When I come home, we will have to have another campfire (bonfire) in the garden, but twice as big, with pizza, lots of greasy pizza, oh Lord, I can smell it now,” Hollinsaid wrote to his mother. “How delicious a cold beer (or soda) and just kick back, breath in some fresh IL air and catch up on lost time. Some of my best memories involve bonfires, I had such a great time while I was home with you all.”

Hollinsaid’s father, Dan, got a similar letter the same day.

Though receiving a letter after a GI’s death can put families in an emotional tailspin, the words are always welcome, say recipients, who describe clutching the dusty sheets as if to keep them from walking away.

Eventually the letters are carefully folded and placed alongside such special items as a lock of hair or lost tooth. Some families keep them framed in the living room.

“During the war, you have so little detailed contact. Maybe an instant message or phone call,” said Billy Ray Parker, who received a letter from his son days after he died in a Humvee crash. “While you’re excited about it, it leaves you unsatisfied.

“When we received his stuff from Iraq and found this letter (that had never been sent) we were so excited and happy. But there was an obviously sad feeling for the reasons we had to receive it.”

His son, Army Pfc. Daniel Parker, 18, of Lake Elsinore, Calif., chatted for three pages about his nighttime assignment and crossing the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. He died several months later, on Aug. 12, 2003, after he was thrown from his vehicle in Mosul.

Halfway through the letter, Parker wrote, “I really don’t want to stop writing cuz while I’m writing I picture you guys all sitting down and reading it and that’s one happy thought for the day.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jessica Curran, a postal clerk on the USS Carl Vinson, didn’t receive the last letter from her brother, Army Spec. Carl Curran, 22, until she returned to her ship after emergency leave for his funeral.

“It took a few days for me to open it, but I finally read it with the chaplain,” she said.

Her brother, of Union City, Pa., was killed May 16 near Fallujah when a bomb exploded as his Humvee crossed a bridge.

In his letter, he wrote about vacationing with his wife and daughter.

“Sometime after I get home, Dianna, Lillian and I may try to go to California and visit Grandma and Grandpa,” Curran wrote. “We haven’t figured it all out though. We’ve got a little over 10 months to plan it.”

Jessica Curran says she likes to close her eyes and imagine him taking that trip. “I can just see them going,” she says.

The last letter from Army Cpl. Evan Asa Ashcraft, 24, of West Hills, Calif., offered “some good news.”

“With all the time I’ve had to think out here,” he wrote to his father and stepmother, “I’ve finally decided what kind of degree I want to pursue. Fire science, so I think I want to be a firefighter. It’ll keep me out of an office building and I won’t have to worry about getting shot in the back like if I was a cop. I’ve had enough bullets fly by my head and near-death experiences to last the rest of my life.”

The letter from Ashcraft, who was killed July 24, 2003, when his convoy came under fire in Al Hawd, offers a reminder of many soldiers’ youth.

“I have a favor to ask, when I get back could you help me find a good deal on a car so I don’t get ripped off,” Ashcraft wrote. “I’ve never been car shopping.”

`NOTHING BUT SAND’

Some of the letters hold vivid details of countries and people far away.

“Kuwait was nice, all things considered,” Sgt. William C. Eckhart, 25, wrote in an unfinished letter to his mother, Terri. “Hot, dry, flat. They have wild camels just wandering around. The Bedouins herd them from place to place with their sheep and goat, which I never found out what they eat or drink. Nothing but sand for as far as you can see.”

Eckhart, of Rocksprings, Texas, was killed April 10 in an explosion in Baqouba.

“Things here are pretty primitive in the way of living conditions. I have accepted the fact that I will be dusty and dirty constantly here,” he wrote. “Iraq is not what I had pictured in my head. Sand dunes, camels, palaces, etc. Most of the people here live in small one-room mud huts.”

He added: “I haven’t had a chance to talk to many Iraqis yet. We keep our distance from them unless we are raiding a village in which case small talk goes right out the window.”

As Eckhart’s letter demonstrates, many write about combat in vague terms, apparently not wanting to worry their families about the dangers.

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeff Bohr, 39, wrote on April 4, 2003:

“We have been around the outskirts of Baghdad now, and we are fighting with the 43rd Armored Division. We have run into some of Saddam’s special forces. We destroyed all of them. I am hoping the fighting will be over soon. It shouldn’t be long.”

Eddie Bohr was sitting in his Ossian, Iowa, living room reading the letter when two Marine representatives and a chaplain came to say his son, a career soldier, had died in a gun battle in Baghdad on April 10, 2003.

OUTLOOK BEYOND THEMSELVES

While avoiding gruesome stories of the combat, many final letters reminded loved ones of the writer’s high ideals.

Parker paraphrased Nathan Hale’s famous last words, writing: “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Beaupre quoted from philosopher John Stuart Mill:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertion of better men than himself.”

Terri Eckhart relishes her son’s last letter because it shows how he had grown to adulthood in the Army.

“I just look at the penmanship,” she says of the letter that came home with her son’s personal effects.

“He used to have the worst handwriting in high school,” said the middle-school teacher, who was impressed with her son’s command of language. “Now I realize he really was getting it at school, and the pieces just hadn’t come together yet. I think about that now when I look out in my classroom.”

Conditions in Iraq aren’t ideal for penmanship.

“Please forgive the sloppiness,” Hollinsaid wrote to his mom. “I write in red light at night while I’m waiting for my squad leader meeting, and red lined paper don’t show up.”

Parker wrote, “This letter was brought to you by Maglight,” referring to the Maglite mini-flashlight soldiers use.

Family members relish e-mails and phone calls from far away, but those whose loved ones have died take special comfort in touching the last letter sent home.

“One of the hardest things in grief is not having the physical person to hold and hug,” says Nicky Beaupre. “Ryan was the best hugger in the world. I miss that. I miss the physical presence. This letter doesn’t replace it, but it’s something that we can put our hands on from our son.”

Her son wrote:

“Please do not be upset with the Marine Corps, the military, the government or the president. It was my choice to go into the military. The president and my higher commander were just doing what they thought was best. Realize that I died doing something that I truly loved. And for a purpose greater than myself.”

© 2004, Chicago Tribune.