It is impossible to say how many soldiers in Vietnam were like John Christiansen.
How many knew, as John did, what they would do with their future, if they were fortunate enough to get one? How many wrote home in the days before their deaths?
On July 24, 1966, the 20-year-old wrote to his dad, John Sr., “Doc,” and his mom, Florence Christiansen, of Durant.
He wrote about his assignment, sweeping roads for mines and burning down houses in villages belonging to the Viet Cong.
He ended the typed, four-paragraph note thus: “I like the life out in the field better, but I’ve had too many friends killed lately (five more at Phu-Bai), and I don’t want to join them.
“It’s getting dark, so I have to close.”
He lived to see darkness one more time.
On July 26, 1966, John was killed in a bridge explosion near Da Nang. The news was delivered to his parents’ door in Durant — a home that doubled as the office for his father, the town doctor.
Letters followed: one from his commanding officer; another from a doctor who supervised John’s work as a corpsman; the letter he wrote two days before he died.
“His body came by train from San Francisco,” said Sue Decker of Davenport, one of John’s four sisters. “Mom liked the word ‘remains.’ She likened it to an egg — where you remove the egg from the shell, and the shell is just the remains.
“John wasn’t in there, anymore.”
Along with the mourning came disappointment. John was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“He was going to be a doctor,” Decker said. “After a year at (the University of) Iowa, he joined the Navy. He wound up attached to the Marines, because they (the Navy) didn’t have a medical unit.”
The guys in Vietnam knew about his plans.
“John told us that his father was a doctor, and we had several conversations about his going to college and then medical school,” Lt. Fred Frankel, M.D., wrote in a July 27, 1966, letter from Da Nang. “John will never get his M.D., but out here in Vietnam, where too many young men are getting hurt, he had a prouder title, ‘Corpsman.’
“To the men of this battalion, he was Doc Christiansen.”
The words stung, even as they healed.
John’s dad took his other son, Tom, into the funeral home to view the body first. His mom and sisters followed.
“The local undertaker was godfather for all six of us,” Decker said. “There was a glass window in the coffin at his head. I’m glad to this day that I got to see him. It was bad, but I could tell it was him.”
John’s family longed for more. What happened? How did he die? Did he live long after the blast? But it took decades before anyone came forward. When a soldier who had been at the bridge at Da Nang contacted Decker in 1994, 32 years after her brother died, the news wasn’t good.
She is grateful still that her parents never learned the details she learned — about John’s body parts being collected and placed in ration cartons. Even for a doctor, it would have been too much.
Grieving without the details had been hard enough. For the Christiansens, mourning was done quietly and in private.
“I remember going into the kitchen on the Christmas Eve after John died,” Decker said. “Mom was standing at the sink alone, crying.”
A lot has changed since 1966, and Decker now speaks freely of her brother, his death, the family’s loss and the importance of making others understand that soldiers such as John had faces, families and real lives.
They once were children. They had dreams. Their families never stop missing them.
“When I think of the parents and spouses and family of the people serving in Afghanistan now, I’m heartsick,” she said. “These soldiers are real people who have brothers and sisters and parents and spouses and kids.”
And that is why Decker spent time this summer putting together a collection of pictures of John, his last letter to his parents and the one from his commanding officer. She put them in an envelope addressed to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.
The contents are intended for the Education Center at The Wall, which is to be built on the National Mall as a companion to The Vietnam Memorial Wall.
“The Wall is a place where people have been leaving things, leaving remembrances,” said Lee Allen, communications director for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, VVMF. “There have been about 300,000 items left there in 30 years, ranging from a custom motorcycle … to photographs, wedding bands and Purple Hearts.
“Every single night, a park ranger picks up the remembrances from the wall and adds them to the collection.”
Those thousands of items will be part of a rotating display at the Education Center, which is getting a ceremonial groundbreaking later this month. At the end of the Education Center tour, visitors will encounter a “gigantic video wall,” which will have pictures and stories of every soldier who was born on that particular day, Allen said.
Of the 58,282 soldiers whose names appear on The Wall, including John Christiansen’s, the VVMF so far has collected photos and stories for almost 30,000.
“Right now, there is no memorial for those (who died) in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Allen said. “We’re going to stand in the gap. The Vietnam Veterans are opening their arms to these heroes, and they will be included on their birthdays.”
It is Decker’s hope the thousands of people who are expected to make the new Education Center part of their National Mall pilgrimage one day will lay eyes upon the would-be doctor from Durant.
“People need to know the men and women who served their country or are serving their country now were once little kids,” she said. “They were darling little kids, and they were loved so.
“My brother honestly had a little black book of girls’ names. He would have had three or four kids, because he loved kids.
“He was real. He had a brother and four sisters and parents who loved and adored him. See? He was real. He’s not just a name on a wall. The last letter he wrote to his parents arrived in Durant four days after his death.
“Can you imagine that?”