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Writing home: Same words, new ways

By Manav Tanneeru
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(CNN) -- Don't tell mom.

That phrase has echoed in troops' letters home as long as America has gone to war.

The ways that wars are fought and even how troops communicate with loved ones back home have changed.

But what the writers say -- whether in letters carried by horseback to the nearest trading post in centuries gone by, or in e-mail and video chats today -- has not changed. The emotion and drama of letters from the front have been consistent through the generations.

Andrew Carroll, a historian who has researched letters home from the Revolutionary War to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, says the letters invariably describe a longing for the simple joys of home and a confrontation with the brutal horrors of war.

"It's fascinating to see how similar the emotions are, what they focus on, what's important to them," he says. "There is a consistency over the centuries and over the generations."

Paul Black, a radio engineer in San Francisco, California, who has a son serving in Iraq, has witnessed the evolution in communications from the front firsthand.

He was in high school during the Vietnam War, and though he didn't serve, the older brothers of many of his friends were drafted when they graduated.

"Sometimes, four or five months would go by before you heard from them. Then, five letters would arrive all at once," he says. "It was agonizing for them and their parents."

His son, Robert, a 23-year-old Marine corporal, has served two tours in Iraq and is now in Kuwait for training.

They talk on the phone once or twice a month and also stay in touch by e-mail.

"There is a great deal of comfort when you can communicate on a consistent and reliable basis," Paul Black says.

They speak frequently of the details of daily life at home, about Robert's sister and brother, his grandfather and his dog, and going to his aunt's for Thanksgiving.

There are also times, however, when the letters are the only way for the father and son to grapple with the reality of war.

In one instance, during fighting in Najaf, several Marines in Robert's squad were injured when ambushed by a sniper.

"Robert was the Humvee driver, and his job was to get them out of the fire zone and to the medics," Paul Black says. "On the way back, he was pummeled with rocket fire and weapons, and one of the tires on the Humvee went flat. But, he stayed the course and got them back there.

"Unfortunately, one young man was his buddy. They had been good friends, and he bled out and died. Robert, of course, blamed himself."

Although he received a citation for his effort, his morale was low, and he wrote his dad a long letter.

"One of the important things he said was, 'This is between you and me, Dad. I don't want Mom to see this,'" Paul Black says.

'Watching civilization unravel'

After a fire destroyed his house and his family's letters, Carroll began the Legacy Project, an initiative to collect letters from all the wars in U.S. history.

He has published two books and is working on a third that includes letters from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Throughout history, the tension in the letters is between a cathartic desire to share emotions and a protective desire to shield families from the realities of war, he says.

"'Don't tell mom' is one of the common phrases you hear," Carroll says.

Not all letters are sweeping descriptions of war. Often, much like the correspondence between Paul Black and his son, they are about the mundane and trivial particulars of life.

"In the chaos of war, [the troops] are almost watching civilization unravel in front of them," Carroll says. "The minutiae may seem completely insignificant in the context of war, but in some ways, that's why it's important. It is that reminder of what things were like back home."

Although what troops speak of has not changed over time, the methods of communication have. E-mail became a means for troops to communicate during deployments to the Balkans in the late 1990s and became more common during the war in Afghanistan in 2001.

With technological advances such as instant messaging, video chats, satellite phones and cellular connections, troops serving overseas now can make instant and near-universal connections. They can also pay bills online, make purchases for families back home and sometimes even be part of important moments.

Staff Sgt. Anthony Luke, who was recently home in Alabama for leave between deployments to Iraq, said he saw his infant son stand up for the first time during a webcam conversation with his girlfriend while he was overseas.

"She and I were talking, and I saw him pull himself up in the background," Luke says. "I was dumbfounded ... It makes you realize what you miss."

The evolution in communication has benefits and drawbacks, according to Lt. Col. David Benedek, a psychiatrist at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.

"It really is a double-edged sword," he said.

For those on the front, the support and reassurance from loved ones helps maintain morale, but it can also distract from the immediacy of war.

Meanwhile, families back home might get anxious if they don't hear from someone for days or weeks, something that might not have been dwelled on in previous wars.

Virginia Taylor, a 25-year-old whose boyfriend is serving his second tour in Iraq, said she sometimes struggles to remain even-keeled when she doesn't hear from him.

"I guess because we're so used to instant gratification, you get spoiled. I sometimes want to say to him, 'It's been a week, why haven't you told me that you want to chat online? What's going on?'" she said.

Although technology has improved, and people at home and on the front can talk more often and more easily, it does not equal physical contact, Taylor says.

She prefers handwritten letters to e-mail because they are almost a physical extension of her boyfriend.

"[He] touched [the letter]. He actually held it versus typing it into cyberspace and sending it," she said.

"It's hard being separated because you do miss the daily life," she said. "You can keep in touch, but you're missing someone living their life."


• Audio slide show: War families
• Gallery: Welcome back
• I-Reports: Salute to troops


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