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Vietnam gives letters of soldier killed in '69 to U.S. defense chief

"If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I'm O.K. I was real lucky. I'll write again soon."

That poignant message never reached the mother of Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty. He was killed in Vietnam in 1969 before he could mail the letters he was carrying, including one he might have been writing when he died. The letters were taken by the Vietnamese after his death, U.S. officials said in releasing excerpts on Monday.

The letters, chronicling the carnage and exhaustion of war, were given to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in exchange for a Vietnamese soldier's diary that was taken from his body by an American GI. The letters will be returned to Flaherty's family in South Carolina.

Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh and Panetta made the exchange at a ceremony in which the Vietnamese also agreed to open three new sites for excavation by the United States to search for troops' remains from the war. Acidic soil in Vietnam erodes bones quickly, in many cases leaving only teeth for military teams to use to identify service members.

Ron Ward, U.S. casualty resolution specialist at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hanoi, said at least four U.S. troops were believed to have been lost in action in the three areas that are being opened. That leaves eight sites still restricted by the Vietnamese, he said.

Memories of the Vietnam War are fading for many Americans, and the war is the stuff of textbooks for others. But it is brought vividly alive in Flaherty's letters. The writings from the Columbia, S.C., native to his mother, Lois, and two women identified only as Mrs. Wyatt and Betty, offer emotional accounts of his fear -- and his determination.

"I felt bullets going past me," Flaherty wrote to Betty. "I have never been so scared in my life.

"We took in lots of casualties and death," he added. "We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget.

"Thank you for your sweet card. It made my miserable day a much better one but I don't think I will ever forget the bloody fight we are having RPG rockets and machine guns really tore my rucksack."

By 1969, the war was sharply dividing Americans back home, but Flaherty told Mrs. Wyatt he still believed in the mission.

"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.

Flaherty, who was with the 101st Airborne, was killed in the northern section of South Vietnam in March 1969. It's clear he saw some heavy combat. "Our platoon started off with 35 men but winded up with 19 men when it was over," he told his mother.

Officials said parts of Flaherty's letters were read in propaganda broadcasts by the Vietnamese during the war.

Vietnamese Col. Nguyen Phu Dat had kept Flaherty's letters, and last August he mentioned them in an online publication.

Early this year, Robert Destatte, a retired Defense Department employee who had worked for the POW/MIA office, noticed the publication, and the Pentagon began to work to get the letters back to Flaherty's family.

Flaherty's sister-in-law, Martha Gibbons, 73, of Irmo, S.C., said she learned of the letters' existence about six weeks ago.

"I had a very emotional morning all over again," Gibbons said. "But it was a wonderful emotion this time. It's good for both countries. It's good for all the soldiers who were killed for both countries."

She said the family would store the letters with Flaherty's medals, scrapbook and flag.