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Last Letter Home


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One of the most difficult tasks that a leader can perform. Click on the link and scroll down to view some of LTC Fenzel's letters that he has written.


The Last Letter Home

When a soldier falls, commanders face
a profound task: Accounting
for a lost life to the family
March 8, 2008; Page A1

ORGUN-E, Afghanistan -- "How do you start a letter like this? How do you end it?"

On a raw November morning here, along the wild frontier bordering Pakistan, Lt. Col. Michael Fenzel spoke those words as he sat down to write to a father who would never see his son again.

Images ran through the colonel's mind. His own two toddler boys, growing up quickly every day he is away at war; the parents of Private First Class Jessy Rogers, whose own child would be forever 20 years old, his age when insurgents detonated a bomb under his Humvee.

Lt. Col. Fenzel, commander of the 1st Battalion (Airborne) of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, started writing, then stopped again. He pressed his forehead into his palms. "Jesus, this is hard," he said.

Many things have changed during hundreds of years of American warfare. But much as they did during the Revolution, Army commanders still write letters, often by hand, to soothe the bereaved, share stories of the good times and -- perhaps -- describe the circumstances of death.

The letters began as a common courtesy among militiamen fighting for independence from England in the 18th Century. Shortly after World War II, the task became obligatory. After the next of kin is notified, via telegram or a knock on the door, the dead soldier's commander is to write a detailed letter explaining what happened.

"The letter should show warmth and a genuine interest in the person to whom it is addressed," instructed the 1948 Bureau of Naval Personnel Manual, in its concise, six-paragraph passage on the matter.

These days, Chapter Eight of Army Regulation 600-8-1, "Preparation and Dispatch of Letters of Sympathy, Condolence, and Concern," has grown to eight pages. The rules can be chillingly specific. "Avoid unfitting compliments and ghastly descriptions," they say. "Do not send photographs depicting casualties."

That's not much help to a commander who sent a soldier to his death.

Each time a man goes down, Lt. Col. Fenzel finds himself struggling for words to ease the pain. Was the death meaningful? Was a life cut short still lived to its fullest? Had the Army turned boy into man? What consolation is there in knowing that a son or husband died not alone, but surrounded by friends?

"Sir, we are so very fortunate to have known and served with your son," the colonel wrote to PFC Rogers's father, David Rogers, a 46-year-old construction worker in Alaska. "We all know the irreparable loss you and your strong family have suffered, and we also know there is very little any of us can say that will provide you any comfort."

Lt. Col. Fenzel, the 40-year-old son of a suburban Chicago car dealer, has already notched tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. On previous deployments, he was the No. 2 in his unit. This time he's in command.

Crested Stationery

So before coming here from his battalion's home base in Italy, he bought some parchment stationery bearing the wing-and-sword crest of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He knew he would likely have to write letters such as these. He didn't want to use printer paper.

His 800-strong battalion has lost 12 men since it arrived last May. The U.S. has lost 485 troops overall in Afghanistan since 2001. Last year was the coalition's most deadly since the war began.

PFC Rogers died in July, along with three of his comrades, in a roadside bombing -- one of the most common causes of death here. A fifth soldier in the Humvee, badly burned, later died from his injuries.

Lt. Col. Fenzel routinely greets his men as "brother" at combat outposts and in chow-hall lines. But he didn't know PFC Rogers very well. In fact, the social distance between a young private and a battalion commander is vast. Officers are prohibited from friendships with enlisted soldiers that could create the appearance of favoritism.

Soon after the death, Lt. Col. Fenzel invited four of PFC Rogers's squad-mates to his office. They crowded onto a small sofa, where they talked about their friend for an hour and a half.

It gave the colonel a better sense of the young man. He and other soldiers had already phoned the family to offer immediate comfort. Still, months passed before the colonel was ready to write the letter that would stand as a more permanent record.

"I wait to find the words, and they will come," he says.

Leaders have long struggled with the ambiguity of simultaneously commanding and consoling. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote to Lydia Bixby of Boston, whose five sons were believed killed in the Civil War. "I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming," President Lincoln wrote. "But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save."

Lt. Col. Fenzel found his words in November. One evening he returned from a mission, eased off his body armor and savored some new photos of his two boys sent by his wife. He was struck by how much they had grown since he had left for Afghanistan just six months earlier.

The next morning, he knew it was time to give PFC Rogers's parents a glimpse into their son's military life.

PFC Rogers grew up in Chickaloon, an Alaskan village of 200 people, 12 of whom were his brothers and sisters. He was the fourth child, home-schooled with his siblings by their mother, Donnetta.

The family lives on a mountainside, 450 steps above the glacial Matanuska River. As a child, Jessy and his siblings would play on the riverbank.

"Jessy always enjoyed the double-take any of us would give him the first time we found out just how big his tight-knit family really was," Lt. Col. Fenzel wrote to Mr. Rogers.

In his letter, the colonel described PFC Rogers's adventures with his D Company buddies, snowboarding in Italy's Dolomite Mountains, forging the bonds that would carry them into combat together. (See a copy of letter.)

Mountains, Memories

The Italian slopes reminded the private of home, Lt. Col. Fenzel wrote. "We all knew that Jessy's heart was right there in Alaska."

Jessy joined the Army because he was angry about the Sept. 11 attacks. But he also hoped to see a bit of the world. "I want to do something different," his mother remembers him saying after he returned from the recruiter.

He always told his mother that, after his eventual discharge, he would return to Alaska, build a cabin on the family property and work construction with his father and four brothers, who roam the state from project to project, living in rustic camps.

"The only thing that gives any of us any real comfort -- and I've said this to myself over and again -- is knowing that he gave his life fighting for our great country, as a hero and alongside men that he loved and respected," Lt. Col. Fenzel said in his letter.

As he wrote that morning, the colonel stopped and read his own words aloud. His voice broke.

After Jessy's death, the Rogers family received a boxful of condolence letters. The ones that meant the most came from Lt. Col. Fenzel and other servicemen.

"They're in a war, and he takes the time to write a hand-written letter to us," says Mrs. Rogers, 46. "That's what I noticed right off the bat."

The letter helped her envision her son's Army life, his friends, pleasures and hardships. "We are Christian, and we believe in a living God. ... Death is something that doesn't bother us," Ms. Rogers says.

"This leaves a huge gap, but I know where he's at," she says. "I had this fear for Jessy, and I'm glad he's out of harm's way now."

The Army assigns responsibility for writing condolence letters to battalion commanders such as Lt. Col. Fenzel. But other individuals, up and down the chain of command, are free to send notes of their own.

The most intimate ones are often penned by younger, lower-level officers who knew the fallen soldier best. Officers such as 30-year-old Capt. John Gibson of Shreveport, La.

Capt. Gibson, a West Point graduate whose cheeks are sunburned from the Afghan sun, commands a company of 180 or so of the soldiers in Lt. Col. Fenzel's 800-strong battalion.

Ever since he first saw combat in Iraq five years ago, Capt. Gibson says he has prayed that he would never have to write a condolence letter. In his fatigues he carries a piece of paper that reads: "A dead soldier who has given his life because of the failure of his leader is a dreadful sight before God."

His first and, so far, only such letter was sent to the mother of PFC Thomas Wilson, a quick-witted 21-year-old from Woodstock, Va., who dropped out of a college wildlife-and-fisheries program to enlist. (See a copy of the letter.)

PFC Wilson was in charge of the armory at Orgun-E, maintaining the unit's rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and other weapons. It's a job that could keep a soldier in the relative safety of a well-defended base.

Instead, PFC Wilson talked his way onto patrols. On one occasion he asked his sergeant to go on a mission with the scouts. He started readying his gear even before he got a reply, pre-empting a possible "no" with a loud "Roger, first sergeant."

The paratroopers patrol along dried riverbeds and steep mountainsides, a landscape painted in every shade of brown. Just 20% of the 300,000 residents of Paktika province are thought to be literate, and most of those can only read verses of the Koran. The troops try to win good will by providing mosque-refurbishment kits that include solar-powered speakers and new prayer rugs for the mullahs.

But the Americans also engage in frequent firefights with insurgents who cross the border from nearby Pakistan.

Ambush Near Orgun-E

When PFC Wilson's convoy was ambushed near Orgun-E last summer, he was manning the turret machine gun in a Humvee. He fired off two cans of ammunition. When he bent over to grab a third, an insurgent's armor-piercing round drilled through the Humvee's protective metal and into his head.

The private died at the scene. His fellow soldiers placed a blue tarp over his body.

Capt. Gibson is keenly aware that his decisions carried PFC Wilson to the place where he died. He doesn't doubt his own orders. But the shock of losing his first man was sharp.

The captain recalls pulling back the tarp and putting his hand on PFC Wilson's forehead to gently close the private's eyes. "I feel like I've let you down," he remembers saying.

Later, he decided to write to PFC Wilson's mother, Julie Hepner. His intention was to describe what a fine soldier her son had been. Yet he wasn't comfortable describing the precise circumstances of his death.

"Do you include the little things? The smell?" he says. "Do I include that I still have a pair of gloves that have his blood on them?"

Capt. Gibson says he decided to leave those details out. Instead, he told Ms. Hepner, a single mother with four children, that the other paratroopers spent five days hunting down the insurgents responsible for the ambush.

Capt. Gibson says he read his letter aloud to himself, and crunched up two drafts before feeling he had struck the right tone.

Only later did he learn that Ms. Hepner had never received the letter from him. So, recently, Capt. Gibson sat down to write it again.

'Your Brave Son Thomas'

Meantime, last October, Lt. Col. Fenzel had written his own letter to Ms. Hepner, 47, who owns a small office- and house-cleaning business in Woodstock. "It has been almost a month since we lost your brave son Thomas to enemy fire," it began. "And the days that pass in between don't make it any easier to be without our brother, your son."

The colonel went on to describe how, during the fatal ambush, PFC Wilson manned his machine gun "bravely and brilliantly" in an intense, 30-minute firefight, before he was shot. His actions saved the lives of 10 other paratroopers, the colonel wrote.

"Please also know that you have gained nearly 800 of Thomas's brothers as your sons, if you'll have us," he wrote to Ms. Hepner.

It was the message she wanted to hear. "What more can a mother ask for," she says, "than knowing that he died in the arms of people who loved him?"

Write to Michael M. Phillips at michael.phillips@wsj.com