- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

FT. HOOD, Texas — Sometimes the most eloquent memories of a war are the letters. "I haven't gotten to ride a camel yet, but I did get to eat one," writes a U.S. Army officer from somewhere in Afghanistan. "The locals cooked one for us and invited us for a BBQ. It was very interesting. It is a lot like dry chicken. I didn't get a ride, but I would have felt bad if I rode it and then ate it.

"The things I do for my country."

This is one of 70,000 letters that Andrew Carroll, a writer living in Washington, has preserved for his Legacy Project, which encourages Americans to seek out and preserve wartime correspondence. He got the idea while listening to texts of love letters from doomed soldiers during Ken Burns' Civil War TV series for PBS in 1990.

Some of the letters are in two books: "Letters of a Nation," published in 1997, and "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars," with 200 previously unpublished letters from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam war and the Persian Gulf war, as well from Somalia and Bosnia. The latter was published in May of last year. PBS did a special based on the book Nov. 11.

"I want to give people a glimpse of military life and what war is like through those who were there, not interpretations, not filtered, this is what they wrote, uncensored," Mr. Carroll says.

"If you're going off to a hostile area, it doesn't really matter what the historical importance is. You're still dealing with the fact that you might not come home alive. The letters really humanize the people who go off to war. I wanted my books to bring these people to life and to remind people who read this book that it's not statistics who go off and fight.

"When you read a series of letters by a 19-year-old kid who's writing to his mom, telling her not to worry while he's in the thick of battle and you see what a whimsical, funny character he is because you're reading his intimate letters, he really comes to life. Then you see the telegram from the War Department saying Private so-and-so was killed. It's devastating."

He founded his Legacy Project four years ago, when he became aware of the snippets going unrecorded by history's foot soldiers. He urges service members to seek out letters whether they're found in basements, attics, scrapbooks or old trunks and to send them to him.

"We will never publish anything without permission," he said. "The contributors can edit anything. They can take their names out. They can take out locations, and they have full control over the material."

He is also seeking any e-mails or photocopies of printed letters sent from service members or from family members regarding Afghanistan or the war on terrorism. His Web site, www.warletters.com, provides information on how to preserve letters and e-mails.

"We don't ask people to send us originals. We are not an archive," he says. "The idea of the book was born out of somewhat of a tragedy. [My family] had an electrical fire in our house right before Christmas in 1989. An outlet exploded and sparks went everywhere.

"Everything got wiped out, just burned to the ground. So that's why I feel so strongly about saving letters."

So he encourages people whose lives are at risk through war to leave a legacy behind in case they do not come home.

"Some of these letters have little crumbles of dirt and dust on them because they are written in a very remote area," he says. "One soldier wrote from a barn and just from the very condition of the paper, you began to understand the circumstances under which they were written.

"I've seen letters written on the back of MREs packages," he says, referring to meals ready to eat. "They'll do anything to write a letter home.

"What is amazing is how modest they are. What horrifies me is how many soldiers delete all their e-mails once they come back. They don't want people on the home front to worry so they downplay the seriousness of the situation."

Because of military censors, soldiers can only give the sparsest details as to location and battle plans.

"Still," Mr. Carroll says, "you can read between the lines, get a sense of their mission, their feeling about al Qaeda and the Taliban, and their longings for home. They request food, magazines and just anything that's a tangible reminder of home."

Two of the hardest letters he's gotten from the current war were from families of a son and a husband who died.

"It was absolutely heartbreaking," he says. "They talked of how much they missed their families and their homes. This is one of the most difficult kinds of wars we have had to fight. It is a very abstract war, and there can be very little reported and known about what they are doing. There is a sense you get from these letters of 'Don't forget us.'"

Note: A version of this article previously ran in the Army Times and the Fort Hood (Texas) Sentinel.


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