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Slain soldier's Vietnam letters returned too late for his parents, but others will cherish mementos

NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports on the return of letters written by Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty during his service in Vietnam.

Letters written by an American soldier killed in Vietnam in 1969 were returned too late for his deceased parents and brother to read, but the rest of his family will cherish the last mementos of their beloved relative, his uncle said Monday.

The missives, penned by Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty, were taken by Vietnamese forces after his death at age 22 in Vietnam and used in broadcasts during the war. They were handed back to American officials during a landmark meeting in the Southeast Asian country on Monday, in which the United States also returned a long-held diary belonging to a Vietnamese soldier.

“It’s a treasure, it’s remembrance,” Flaherty’s uncle, 80-year-old Kenneth Cannon, of Prosperity, S.C., told msnbc.com. When he learned about the documents, he said: “I felt very good about it. … I was eager and anxious to learn about Steve, what his thoughts were when he was there.”

Cannon said he did not know two of the people the letters were addressed to, identified as “Betty” and “Mrs. Wyatt,” but he said the family would try and find them. He described his nephew as an excellent student and athlete who loved life and was well-loved, especially by his older brother Ronald, who had spotted Steve, about 14 years his junior, in an orphanage while he was stationed in Japan with the Army and asked his parents to adopt the boy.

Then six, Steve Flaherty, whose biological father was American and his mother Japanese, traveled on his own by plane and train to his new home in Columbia, S.C., Cannon said. Before enlisting, Major League Baseball scouts had expressed interest in recruiting him, but Flaherty wanted to join the Army, his uncle said.

An obit for Flaherty published in The State newspaper upon his death on March 25, 1969, said he won the outstanding athlete and baseball player awards in 1966 at his high school, enlisted in October 1967 and was sent to Vietnam one year later. He was killed near the A Shau Valley.

Courtesy of the Richland County Public Library

The obit of Steve Flaherty of Columbia, S.C. published in The State Newspaper on March 30, 1969.

Vietnamese Col. Nguyen Phu Dat kept Flaherty’s letters, but it was not until last August, when he mentioned them in an online publication, that they started to come to light. Early this year, Robert Destatte, a retired Defense Department employee who had worked for the POW/MIA office, noticed the online publication, and the Pentagon began to work to get the letters back to Flaherty's family.

Panetta visits Vietnam, exchanges soldiers effects

In a letter to his mother, Flaherty wrote: "Our platoon started off with 35 men but winded up with 19 men when it was over. We lost platoon leader and whole squad.” He added, “The NVA soldiers fought until they died and one even booby trapped himself and when we approached him, he blew himself up and took two of our men with him.”

Another letter to his mom reads: "If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I'm O.K. I was real lucky. I'll write again soon."

Flaherty’s mother, Lois, died in 2002. His father, Army Lt. Col. Raymond G. Flaherty, passed before her though it’s not clear when from his wife’s obituary. His brother Ronald died in 2009 at the age of 76.

Cannon’s son, Mike, a 54-year-old living in Surprise, Ariz., said it had been an emotional journey for him since Destatte contacted the family. He was 10 when Steve died and didn’t fully grasp the larger implications of the Vietnam War or why his cousin had gone there.

Vietnam has given U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta the personal letters of a soldier who was killed in the Vietnam war in 1969. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

“I was just blown away that they even existed after this many years,” he said, at points breaking down in tears. When asked what he hoped his family would get from the letters, he said, “You can’t really say closure. … Whatever I could read about it would be very helpful.”

It’s not clear when they will receive the letters, but Kenneth Cannon said they would be shared among the family.

“Nobody has ever forgotten Steve,” he said. “They’ll go into frames and they’ll be cherished.”


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