In a time of endless war, love letters have defined and shaped my marriage.
I wish I could say we’d only written a few to get us through infrequent periods of hardship, but we’ve penned thousands of letters over the last eighteen years and five deployments. As a military family, letters have come to our rescue time and again, keeping us connected when it seems the whole world strives to rip us apart.
“I can’t even describe how much my heart hurts when I think about being this far away from you.” ~ Jason, Iraq 2003
When I was eight years-old, I saw my father open a plastic bag containing a scrap of paper, inhale and sigh with something I now know was longing. He caught my eye with a sad smile and said, “It’s your mom’s perfume. She sent it in a letter.” Being the child of two army officers who were also army brats meant I wasn’t a stranger to the hardships of military life. But, that moment, caught during a time when my parents lived oceans apart at different duty stations, carved a place in my memory and marked my heart in a way I wouldn’t understand until I sprayed my own perfume on a letter and mailed it to my husband in Iraq thirteen years later.
“I’ll never fall for a soldier.” That was my vow to my own heart. But then, at a karaoke bar, a green-eyed boy asked me to sing with him, resulting in a scene worthy of a rom-com and one very broken vow.
My husband and I began our letters in 2000 when our relationship was brand new and he was training in the field for a few weeks. Those limited days without phone calls were intimidating to those nineteen-year old kids who have now grown into thirty-seven year-olds wishing our separations could have always been so short. So benign. We used those weeks, those letters, to learn all we could about each other. I’d ask a question, and it might take a week to get it, but the answer would appear in his next letter. I did the same for him. Our pasts, our futures, our fears—there was no topic off limits. We were wildly, almost recklessly honest with each other, and I fell in love with Jason not only for his actions, but through his letters—his words.
By May of 2001, we were engaged and had a hundred or so letters under our belt between field time and month-long rotations to the National Training Center. One September morning, I called Jason from my office in shock as the news broadcast the fall of the second tower.
“They’ve cancelled my leave and called me in.” ~ Jason, September 11, 2001
That’s when it hit me—the ugly, nauseating realization that he’d be sent to war, that our lives were about to be changed and challenged in ways we couldn’t yet fathom. Ways I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to handle.
He was sent to Egypt a few weeks later.
We were married that May.
“Happy Birthday, Sweetheart. Wow, the big 22! I wish I could be there for you.” ~ Jason, Iraq April 2003
By April the following year, I stood in the doorway of our nursery, watching Jason rock our newborn son, Aaron, for hours as he slept peacefully, blissfully unaware that Jason would deploy to Iraq in the morning.
None of us knowing he would come within millimeters of not making it back.
“I’m going to try to make sure your name is called at almost every mail call. I guess it makes me feel like I’m keeping you close, even though you’re half a world away. Just remember that I love you. I love you more than anything, Jason. You’re my first thought when I wake and my last thought as I fall asleep.” ~ Rebecca, letter #4, Iraq 2003.
Early that first deployment, there were no phones. No internet. No quick text messages to say he was safe. We made a vow to write as often as possible. We also made the decision that we would hold nothing back. We wouldn’t sugarcoat our lives or feelings to each other, no matter how hard they might be to stomach. We wouldn’t put our marriage on hold for the year—we’d use letters like we did in the beginning, to communicate and grow despite the thousands of miles between us.
After sixteen years of marriage and five deployments that we never saw coming, I still credit those early decisions as the glue that has held us together when we’ve seen so many military marriages crumble under the weight of endless deployments.
I numbered the letters, knowing he might receive them out of order—which he did. I kept my own list of numbers and dates, making sure I didn’t miss a single night. Whether it was mundane or news-worthy, it went into the letter. Tiny details about our life, our son, my fears and frustrations—they all went down on paper. But the best part? Anything I wouldn’t have told him went in, too.
I unleashed myself in the letters, showed him parts of me that he hadn’t seen. I found freedom in a blank piece of paper, and the ability to truly empty my heart and thoughts without an immediate response was both aggravating and incredibly freeing. Writing to Jason every night became my journal, and in that way, he was given a window to my soul that he might not ever have had without the letters.
Six weeks later, his first letter arrived. I stood in the street, our mailbox still open, and sobbed uncontrollably the minute my fingers grazed his familiar handwriting. He’d sent it shortly after deployment—the mail was that hellishly slow.
That letter, while six weeks old, had been held by him. He had touched that paper, sat somewhere in a place I couldn’t picture, and put his pen to it. And while I couldn’t hold him, it felt like our fingers had somehow spanned miles that separated us and linked for one precious minute as I read his words, his thoughts, his feelings. Whether it was my desperate need for him, or just the truth, I could have sworn I caught his familiar scent mixed with the metallic tang of tanks.
Phone calls, while scattered and only every couple of weeks, were a breathtaking, instant proof of life over static-filled lines where our own voices echoed back, and we were usually disconnected after three blissful minutes. But it was our letters that we read and reread, that held us together while we watched our friends fall apart. We knew the details of each other’s lives, and even managed a fight or two via pen and paper. But that’s the thing about writing letters, there’s no firing off a text message and watching it escalate quickly, thoughtlessly. Writing a letter requires thought, premeditation, even, and when you wait weeks for a response, you also have weeks to cool off, calm down, and think about the other person’s side with a perspective that instant communication can’t provide. Living your marriage through letters forces you to learn patience and perseverance.
I wrote Jason every night, until the morning after I’d penned letter number 118. I answered the phone to hear the notification that he’d been seriously wounded. He returned home a week later to recover from extensive shrapnel wounds and partial blindness in his right eye that doctors weren’t sure would heal. He’d been gone for months, but even with the stress, worry, and care a wounded warrior required, we fell back into each other with an ease I knew our letters had given us. There were no secrets. No surprises. We’d been openly, brutally honest with each other, and it saved and strengthened us in a time when stress could have shredded such a young marriage.
I wrote letter number 119 four months later, the night before Jason returned, having volunteered to go back to his men and finish his deployment now that his eyesight had fully returned and he was cleared for duty. To this day, I look at my record of letter numbers carefully preserved in a binder, and run my fingers over that gap in dates, remembering how close we came to losing each other. How I’d still kept writing even though I’d been so scared, so proud and yet so angry that he’d chosen to return. How lucky we are to still be in love all these years later because we kept writing on the days we might not want to until we reached the days where we did.
Fast forward a year, and the letters began at number one as Jason’s unit was sent for another year-long deployment to Iraq. The phone calls now came daily, and he watched our second son, Aidan, walk for the first time via web-cam. But nothing replaced the letters. Every night I wrote him before reading my worried brain into exhaustion so I could sleep. Every day I checked the mailbox, and clutched those envelopes to my chest as if I were holding him—and not just his handwriting.
During the third and fourth deployments, this time to Afghanistan, the immediacy and convenience of frequent, instant communication via cell phone decreased the frequency of our letters, but we still made the effort, and yielded the same results.
The art of putting pen to paper in this era of instant communication might seem simple, antiquated, or even ineffective. But as we make our way through this fifth—and final—deployment before Jason retires, my heart still skips when I see his handwriting scrawled across paper, both in letters he’s sent, and the ones he’s left hidden throughout the house for me to find in moments he somehow knew I would need him—my hockey jacket for when he’d miss the kid’s first games of the season, or inside the last box of coffee, leading me to where he’d stashed two more because he knows I detest going to the grocery store.
Deployments continue. Communication evolves. Text messages, video chats, and email keep us in frequent contact. But there’s still nothing like a good, old-fashioned love letter to keep us tethered to ones we love—no matter how far they go, or how long they’re gone. And after eighteen years?
Man, we write some great letters.
“I think about you constantly, and love you more every single day. Give the kids a kiss for me. You’re my everything.” ~ Jason, Afghanistan 2014
The Last Letter is the story of a soldier who falls in love with his battle buddy’s sister through their letters and returns from Afghanistan with a secret that could destroy their fragile relationship. InTouch Weekly called it “a haunting, heartbreaking and ultimately inspirational love story.”
This is my favorite book to date, not just because it tackles some of the issues close to my heart as a military wife, but also motherhood. It’s an incredibly personal story to me, especially since writing letters kept my husband and I connected through five deployments. We have thousands of them in boxes in our basement. I refuse to throw them away, which earns me an eye-roll from Jason when it’s time to reorganize, but I catch him rereading them just as often as I do. There’s just something timeless about a letter and the way it captures every emotion, and even the environment from where it was written. I have sand in that box from Iraq, bits of dirt from Afghanistan, and even a few broken Legos from the times our six kids would sneak their sculptures into Jason’s care packages. Little memories like that, tucked away in our very own time capsule, are why I love letters so much, and why this book has a piece of my soul. – Rebecca Yarros