Last week I wrote about receiving a welcome, and rare, letter from a member of Congress years ago when I was serving in the Pentagon. Writing that column brought back to mind a number of cases, ranging from depressing to hilarious, with which I was involved in those years.
I was in an assignment I had not wanted and would have fought to avoid, had I possessed any means with which to fight. I went there with no expectation of finding pleasure in the job, instead just hoping to perform my duties satisfactorily for three years without destroying my career. But it turned out to be one of the most rewarding assignments of my life. While some of the work was repetitive and unexciting, much of it was out of the ordinary, and in a surprising number of instances, I was able to trigger a solution to an egregious injustice by going directly to the top officers of the Army for immediate action.
As I have mentioned before, my daily life in that job revolved around letters. Hundreds of them. Most had gone first to the President, sometimes the First Lady, the members of the Army chain of command, the Inspector General of the Army, or any of the members of Congress. Allegations of wrongdoing or pleas for help were constant, and often they were heartbreaking. Some were fascinating, many were shocking, and some were mirth-provoking. A few made such an impact that I remember whole sections of verbiage to this day.
I recall the lengthy and beautifully worded letter from a gentleman who had gone ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day 1944. I don’t remember the purpose of the letter, but I remember his vivid and eloquent descriptions of the action. Specifically, he described watching the famous DD tanks, M2 Shermans modified to swim to shore. Driven by propellers until they reached land, they were designed to proceed safely in one-foot waves. With the rough weather of D-Day, the waves when the tanks were launched three miles offshore were six feet. Of the 29 put into the water, 27 sank. I knew the story, but the correspondent’s first-hand knowledge, so clearly expressed, was a special bonus.
We got a fair sprinkling of tinfoil-hat letters. People complained of the government monitoring their thoughts, of the Army disturbing their sleep by sending dreams through the house wiring. A woman sent a multi-page letter explaining how brilliant her young soldier-husband was. She described the many times when he had out-thought his superior officers, and she was certain he was perfectly capable of running the entire Army. She insisted that we help her get him in the right position to do this.
There were sad letters. A letter from a distraught father told how his sick son was labeled a malingerer after being seen many times by medical personnel who were certain he was shamming. He was separated from service, put aboard a bus, and died on the way home. Our investigation found every word of the complaint to be true.
In the midst of memories of sad letters, mysterious letters, crazy letters, here and there is a nugget that is just pure fun to recall. My favorite involved a young soldier who had lodged a complaint with his local commander. He didn’t like the answer he got and, being a persistent fellow, he then wrote to the Inspector General of the Army, then the Chief of Staff of the Army, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, finally, the President. Each letter landed on my desk, and each time, he received a response over my signature. To reopen a case simply because a complainant didn’t like the answer would have led to administrative bedlam. Each of my responses to him ended with the sentence, “In the absence of new information, this matter remains closed.”
Finally, the young man had had enough. He wrote directly to me, briefly reviewed to whom he had written and how I had responded each time. Then, in words etched in my memory, he said, “I believe if I wrote to Jesus Christ himself, the letter would somehow come across your desk. Let’s stop this senseless corresponding. I am the victim. Please allow me the luxury of the last word.”
I wish I could meet that then-young soldier. I’d like to express my regret that I was not able to give him the answer he wanted. And tell him how I have enjoyed his final words all these years.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”