Letters Kept Soldier Connected to Home, Fiancee during Vietnam

Signing a letter.

WATERLOO -- Sometimes Carolyn Lowe went two or three weeks without receiving a letter. Then she'd open the mail box and seven or eight would tumble out into her hands. On those days, Carolyn felt reassured her fiance Mike Norris was still alive on the other side of the world.

From 1966 to 1968, Mike Norris served in the U.S. Army stationed in Vietnam. He was a radio man for a mortar unit in the 11th Armored Cavalry, 2nd squadron, E Company. Norris looked forward to mail call because those pages where his connection with home.

While texting, emailing and Skype keep service personnel connected with home, handwritten letters were often the sole means of communicating with a solider "in country," and read over and over again.

"He says he got letters sporadically, not always in the same order. We numbered the letters sometimes. You just kept hoping the letters would come. You could read some things into the letters. Compared to our son who was in Iraq and Skyping, it's so different now. "

She recalled the reel-to-reel tape recordings she and Mike exchanged. "It was what you had, the best you had. I had tapes you could hear firing in the background," recalls Carolyn, who, at the time, was studying nursing at Allen College.

The couple met in church when they were 9 years old. "His mom was my Sunday School teacher. We were confirmed together, went to high school together and graduated the same year. We started dating as juniors in high school," she says.

Mike was drafted into the Army in October 1966 and returned home on leave at Christmas. He gave Carolyn a diamond ring. "It was understood we were going to get married, and when we got engaged, my parents made me promise to finishing nursing school before I got married."

While her fiance fought in the jungles of Vietnam, Carolyn concentrated on her studies and wrote countless letters to Mike. She knew he was in danger, and she also knew he couldn't say where he was or what battles he was fighting.

"He would talk about the weather ... 'the ditch is full of water ... my Bible is floating.'"

Initially Mike had a hard time when he returned home, Carolyn recalls. He was hyper-vigilant, anxious and unable to relax. Still, "he didn't talk about stuff like that." He went back to work, they married and started a family, and life moved on.

Mike also sought treatment through the Veterans Administration for exposure to Agent Orange, one of the defoliants used in Vietnam by the U.S. military from 1961 to 1971. "Nobody wanted to talk about that ... it really needed to be dealt with," Carolyn says.

It took 1 1/2 years for the VA to respond to the applications Carolyn filled out for Mike. His treatment was not approved, and another round of paperwork followed. Finally, he got approval and became the first veteran in Black Hawk County approved for Agent Orange treatment.

As their sons grew up and decided to enter the military, Mike became more talkative about his Vietnam experiences. "They'd ask a question, and Mike would always answer them. The more they asked, the more free he felt to talk about it."

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Army Veterans Vietnam War