"We couldn't retrieve the bodies of our men or ruck sacks and when we brought air strikes, jets dropped napalm and explosives that destroyed everything that was there."
"I definitely will take R&R, 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."
"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."
The above are excerpts from letters written 43 years ago in Vietnam by Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty to his mother.
His mother, however, never received the letters, as those and other letters he had written to her and to loved ones back home -- and which he carried with him -- were taken from him by Vietnamese forces when he was killed in action on March 25, 1969. Other excerpts of those letters were used in propaganda broadcasts by Vietnamese forces during the war.
According to the Department of Defense, Vietnamese Senior Colonel Nguyen Phu Dat saved the letters and, following the war, "the colonel contemplated how to return them to Flaherty's family, but there was no way."
But on Monday, during a historic visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to Hanoi, he accepted the letters from Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh. In return, Panetta returned "artifacts" taken from Vietnamese soldiers during the war.
Among the "artifacts" was a diary kept by Vietnamese soldier Vu Dinh Doan in 1966. The diary was taken by a U.S. Marine from the Vietnamese soldier who had died in a machine gun firefight just a few miles south from where Flaherty had fallen.
The American Forces Press Service reports:
These are more than artifacts, they are voices from the grave, and they will now speak to the families of these fallen men.
Doan and Flaherty carried these items through the combat and heat and pain of the Vietnam War. They put their thoughts, feelings and experiences in these missives.
These two men were enemies. Yet today, their stories are intertwined and their words are helping to bind the two nations together.
To read more excerpts from Flaherty's letters, please click here, and to read how Flaherty's letters and Vu Dinh Doan's diary became part of this historic "artifacts exchange," and how this exchange may help cement ties between the U.S. and Vietnam, please click here.
Image: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta accepts letters from Vietnamese Defense Secretary Phung Quang Thanh, in Hanoi, Vietnam, June 4, 2012 U.S. Department of Defense
Read more letters from Vietnam below:
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