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By Steven Curtis
Almost as feared as the enemy bullet was the "Dear John" letter. I took this photo of a buddy the night he got one. I don't remember what his real name was—he was always talking about his girlfriend Rose so we always called him Rosie —but it doesn't matter: it could have been almost any of us at one time or another. Hardly a week went by without somebody getting one.
Mail call was often referred to as the "Dear John" roundup. They were almost always the same story. A guy would get a letter from his girl informing him that she didn't want to hurt him but she'd met someone else and, from now on, she just wanted to be friends or even worse, no longer wanted to stay in touch. Since they hadn't seen each other in over six months, how could he expect her to be faithful for an entire year? After coming to terms with the one I got, I began to counsel others who got them by telling them to look at it as a blessing in disguise: any woman who didn't have enough strength of character to stand by her man in his time of need wasn't worth going back to anyway.
I remember one sergeant—a hardened one at that—who attempted to "off" himself right in front of us after getting a "Dear John" from his wife. We heard him cussing as he read the letter but that wasn't unusual—everybody was always cussing about something. Only after he placed his M-16 on the deck while sitting on the edge of his bunk with the flash suppressor directly under his chin did we realize something was seriously wrong. The rest of us ran over and pulled his rifle away at the last moment. They sent him off to sickbay and from there to "somewhere else." I just assumed that would be the last we saw of him but damn if they didn't send him right back to our unit a week later. He was terribly embarrassed as well as moody and unpredictable from that point on. It was tough for the rest of us, too. We didn't know what to say when we were around him. How stable was he? To what degree could he be counted on?
The most unusual "Dear John" I ever saw came in a box to my buddy Seth. Seth was a typical California boy: a blond-hair blue-eyed surfer who was always doing push-ups and sit-ups and he had a body that reflected his dedication. He was always writing letters to influential people. In response to a letter he wrote to his state senator, he received a California state flag that Seth displayed proudly above his rack.
He wrote a letter to the editor of Playboy, highly critical of the war and even signed his name. Lots of bets were placed on how much trouble he would get into but nothing ever came of it. One day, he received a package from his wife. He had become very concerned after learning she was keeping company with a guy she recently met in college. He was so excited at the thought of what might be in there; he hoped she wanted to make up and was hoping it was cookies or something very special. When he opened it up, he found a roll of toilet paper with the longest "Dear John" written on it that anybody had seen. Why she had to be so vicious and cruel, I can't say. I guess she thought it would break his heart, that it would make him cry. Well, it did.
Steven Curtis was a Marine Corps photographer from '68-'70.
More photos, stories and his book can be seen at www.TheVietnamIRemember.com