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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lost letters from 'Nam

 •  Fate of Iraq war memorials unclear

By William Cole

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Two letters that a soldier fighting in Vietnam wrote to his married sister in 1969 just recently reached her in Kapolei.

Photos courtesy of Janet Culliton

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Rod Severson

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When he was in Vietnam, Rod Severson sent a lot of letters home to family.

Forty-one years later, two of them came in the mail to his sister in Kapolei.

Caught in a bizarre and unexplained time warp, the two letters written in January and June of 1969 by Severson arrived several months ago at his sister Janet Culliton's former home in Whittier, Calif.

A veterans' group and a local newspaper got involved, and a perplexed Severson soon had the letters he had written four decades ago back in his hands. He dutifully sent them on to his sister, who now lives in Hawai'i.

"It was like a peek back and a little view of the past," Severson said by phone from his home in Roseburg, Ore.

Severson, now 64, saw some serious combat as a draftee in Vietnam, and the vivid return to those days via the letters was a bit unsettling.

"There was some pretty rough savagery on both sides over there," said the onetime sergeant with the Army's 9th Infantry Division.

Severson was based out of Dong Tam in the Mekong delta, and spent some time afterward assigned to Schofield Barracks.

"I felt a lot of anxiety (about what was in the letters), and I don't know why," said Severson, who became a police officer in California and later owned a printing business in Oregon.

In Vietnam, he was in firefights, and mortar fire would be directed at his unit, which was constantly on the move.

"You'd be talking to somebody one morning ... going through the jungle, and all of a sudden, that person is gone they were hit by a booby trap or a sniper or something," he said.

How and why the two letters went through the mail 41 years after they were written is a mystery. Even though they were sent out months apart, the letters showed up this year at their intended address within three days of each other.

"This is the strangest part about this, I think, as far as deciphering where (the letters) ... may have been," Severson said.

He believes the letters were somehow sidetracked for four decades within the U.S. military system. Both letters have the word "free" written in where postage would go, because mail was free for service members in Vietnam.

One of the letters was addressed to "Mrs. Ken Kopcho," which was Culliton's married name at the time. The other letter was similarly addressed.

When he received the letters back, Severson forwarded them to his sister.

"I felt like they belonged to her," he said.

Culliton, 61, said it was "amazing" to receive the letters, but they harked back to a difficult time for her as well.

She knew "Rodney" was in combat, and another brother was in the Navy in Vietnam, she said.

"During those days, when you were an 18- or 19-year-old boy, you knew you were going to be drafted and you were going to Vietnam," Culliton said.

Culliton said "there's some funny parts" in her brother's letters.

"He's a very witty guy," she said.

Also reflected is the seriousness of his mission.

Culliton read from one of the letters, in which her brother wrote:

"Listen, I haven't said much about what we're doing, not really a lot, but Charles is definitely getting active. I've got to go now. It's the next day, I'm about 200 meters from our artillery base building sandbag bunkers. They expect a mortar attack soon. Every place we've been has been hit right after we left. I guess our luck can't go on indefinitely."

"Charles" was a nickname for the enemy.

Culliton said the misdirected 41-year-old letters have brought her and her brother closer together, and they now talk about once a week.

Her two brothers and her husband were in Vietnam, and with Memorial Day observed tomorrow, the letters also have brought a new reflection on their service.

"It just brings back a lot of gratefulness and thankfulness that they survived that, that they are home, and they have grandchildren," she said.