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June 5, 2012

43 years later, letters from slain Columbia soldier coming home

When Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty of Columbia was killed in 1969 during a battle in South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley, U.S. soldiers could not recover his body immediately.

That allowed the North Vietnamese time to take his unsent letters — filled with his descriptions of the horror and fear of combat. The North Vietnamese used Flaherty’s words as propaganda. “It has been trying days for me and my men,” Flaherty wrote. “We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget.”

Now, 43 years after Flaherty was buried at Greenlawn Cemetery, his letters are coming home.

During an historic visit Monday to the now-reunited Vietnam, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta exchanged a diary taken from a slain North Vietnamese soldier by a Marine for four letters that Flaherty had written but never had the chance to send. It was the first exchange of war artifacts between the two countries, former enemies now looking to expand relations.

“When I read them, I started sobbing,” Flaherty’s sister-in-law, Martha Gibbons of Irmo, said Monday. “It almost put me on battlefield with him.”

The letters also have reopened emotions about the war for Flaherty’s family.

“It’s a senseless loss of life,” said Flaherty’s uncle, Kenneth Cannon, a Navy veteran who lives in Prosperity. “A lot of good lives were wasted in the war in Vietnam to serve no purpose. He didn’t deserve that.”

Flaherty was 6 years old when he was adopted from a Japanese orphanage. His future brother volunteered at the orphanage while stationed overseas in the Army.

His aunt and uncle said Flaherty was a well-liked, well-behaved child who excelled at sports and academics. “He was very well-disciplined,” Gibbons said.

Flaherty was a baseball star at Dentsville High, now site of Dent Middle School, and received a baseball scholarship to Bryan College in Tennessee, where he was named to the all-conference team as a freshman.

The Cincinnati Reds were interested in Flaherty, relatives said. Instead, he surprised his family by choosing Army green.

Gibbons said they thought Flaherty was joking. “He said he felt obligated to serve his country because it had given him a home.”

As a member of the 101st Airborne Division, Flaherty often would write but did not reveal his fears and concerns like those in the letters that were exchanged Monday. Some of the mail was to his mother, who along with his father and only brother are deceased. Other letters were addressed to “Betty” and “Mrs. Wyatt,” whom surviving relatives do not know.

“I felt bullets going past me,” he wrote to Betty in an excerpt, released by Army. “I have never been so scared in my life.”

To Mrs. Wyatt, he wrote: “Our platoon leader was killed and I was the temporary platoon leader until we got the replacement. Nothing seems to go well for us but we’ll take that ridge line.”

Flaherty was 22 when he was killed in a battle along one of the North Vietnamese Army’s major supply routes.

Bob Destatte, a retired analyst with the Department of Defense’s POW/Missing Personnel Office, discovered Flaherty’s letters in an article on a Vietnamese online magazine. The article was about a former North Vietnamese soldier who had held onto the correspondence so it could be returned to Flaherty’s mother. For years, the soldier kept the letters in a bundle on a bookshelf’s high ledge, where no one could reach them easily, the article said.

Destatte worked the Defense Department and the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam to get the letters returned. The exchange was arranged as part of the visit by Panetta. Destatte then worked with the Richland County Sheriff’s office to find Flaherty’s relatives.

“We have an obligation to honor the memory of our comrades who gave their lives and help ensure their service and sacrifice are not forgotten,” Destatte said.

Gibbons looks forward to sharing the letters with her four grandchildren, who often look at a scrapbook she keeps about Flaherty. Cannon said he wants to find Betty and Mrs. Wyatt to share the letters with them.

And he wants people who have never been sent to war to understand the experience.

“People will see the heart that it takes to fight,” Cannon said. “And they’ll get to know Steve.”

Letters from Vietnam

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