Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Soldiers' words span continents, centuries to link families' hearts

By Marney Rich Keenan / The Detroit News

Marney Rich Keenan

The scrapbook my mother made for posterity is now some 36 years old. In between the now stiff and cracked plastic sheets are mementos saved to preserve my brother Michael's memory, her first-born child who died in Vietnam at the age of 23.

In these pages are photos of Mike's graduation at Notre Dame; two months later he left for Vietnam. There is a copy of the sermon given by my mother's beloved monsignor at his funeral, the lyrics to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." I can remember singing "Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord" as we filed out of the pews following the flag-draped coffin.

The newspaper clippings are yellow now. The headlines read: "Death of marine cancels meeting with son," referring to the South Vietnamese orphan Mike had adopted through Foster Parents Plan and had hoped to meet while he was over there.

Of all the pieces she saved, of all the photos, and the ribboned medals she framed, nothing meant more to her, and over time, to us, than one of the letters Michael had written home.

So it is little wonder that, in Detroit, a local father of a Marine slain in Iraq is pleading with Yahoo! to allow him access to his son's e-mail account. The Detroit News' Jennifer Chambers wrote of the father's desperate efforts to lay claim to his son's words and see the pictures he sent from the front lines. At this writing, Yahoo says it must abide by its subscriber privacy rules. But a soldier's last words to his family would seem to fit an almighty exception; the one case where breaking the rules is right and just and necessary.

For my family, the letters are not only Mike's legacy, but they give us a lens from which to imagine what he was thinking and feeling half a world away. The one letter my mother loved most is the one dated simply "Weds. night."

"Dear Mom and Dad,

"This 15 day staging period has actually been something of a pain. However, it's had its merits. One of the things I've learned is not at all militarily oriented -- I've learned how lucky I really am.

"These troops have some unbelievable family records; most of them contend with incredible personal problems. I see them every day and can only think about how lucky I am to have been born into the family I have. These kids see other families every day that they would rather have been born into and I, in my 22 years, have yet to see any other family or group I'd rather be a part of -- a family that might have for me one tenth of what mine already has.

"Even all my friends without fail have mentioned to me at one time or another how my parents, my family, were the greatest they'd ever known. How all my newlywed buddies work to reach the goal of a Rich-type marriage.

"I've just been unbelievably lucky being a brother to Marney and my brothers. If my life were to end tomorrow I will have lived a fuller life than any friend of mine, no matter how long he or she hangs around.

"Anyway, I want you to know how I feel. I'm completely unafraid, because if I lost everything I'd still be miles ahead of anyone I know outside of the Riches. I only wish you could feel the same way and not worry. Remember that if something were to happen, I'll be in heaven long before you ever hear about it. "I'll write again soon. Love, Mike"

Marney Rich Keenan's column runs in The Detroit News Features section on Wednesdays and in Homestyle on Saturdays. You can reach her at (313) 222-2515 or

Last modified date and time: 04/28/2005 20:11