COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Four letters written by a Columbia Soldier killed in Vietnam have finally found their way home more than 40 years after they were first inked.
Sgt. Steve Flaherty was killed in March 1969 while fighting with the 101st Airborne Division in the A-Shau-A Luoi Valley, Vietnam. Before his body was recovered, a North Vietnamese soldier took several letters Flaherty had written but not yet mailed. The North Vietnamese used excerpts from the letters for propaganda broadcasts.
On July 14, those letters were finally returned to his closest living relatives at a ceremony at Columbia's Vietnam Memorial.
"The last we heard from him was a Christmas card that his mother got in December of 68," said Martha Gibbons, Flaherty's sister-in-law. "He just said that it's not going to be a very good Christmas and I'll do better next year. At that time he still sounded very optimistic, but he concealed the real danger he was in and the real fear he was in. He concealed that especially from his mother."
The letters were obtained by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when he visited Vietnam in June and returned a diary that an American Soldier had taken off a North Vietnamese soldier.
"They are in remarkable condition to be 40 years old," said Ken Cannon, Flaherty's uncle. "I know Steve would be glad they are back home."
Growing up, Flaherty was a high school standout in baseball, being offered a contract by the Cincinnati Reds. Rather than chasing the dream that so many young men have of becoming a professional athlete, Flaherty chose to enlist in the Army in 1967.
"He felt it was his duty to fight for the country he loved and that had done so much for him," said Cannon.
The current deputy commander of the unit Flaherty served with in Vietnam had the honor of handing the letters over to the family. He said in addition to giving Flaherty's family insight to what he was experiencing, returning the letters serves as a teaching moment for current Soldiers.
"This is something we talk to our Soldiers about," said Lt. Col. Townley Hedrick, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. "This is an example of how we never forget our comrades that have gone before us. Forty years later we're able to present these letters to his family. It's an inspiring story and it's inspiring to be a part of this."
Flaherty's family refrained from reading any of the letters after the ceremony, preferring to wait until a more private moment.
"I haven't read them, and I don't plan on reading them until a little later, I don't think I could," said Cannon as he choked back tears. "But we're glad they're back home and I know that Steve would be glad that they're back home."
While Flaherty's family had yet to read any of the letters, snippets from the letters have been published giving insight to what Flaherty was thinking and feeling during his final days.
In one letter he wrote, "We took in lots of casualties and death. It has been trying days for me and my men. We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget."
Another letter showed the doubts about the war that Flaherty and many of his fellow Soldiers had.
"This is a dirty and cruel war but I'm sure people will understand the purpose of this war even though many of us might not agree," he wrote.
Cannon said he expects reading the letters should give him a greater understanding of what it was like for his nephew in the jungles of Vietnam.
"Those people experienced something that a lot of us will never ever experience. It is regrettable but it had to be done," he said. "Steve was part of that, he is history, he made history. I am really glad he is our nephew."
The letters will eventually become part of a display at the South Carolina Military Museum.
"Now, through these letters he will live forever and be a part of history," said Gibbons.