It began with a letter that Barbara Sonneborn wrote to her husband Jeff in
1988, 20 years after he was killed during the war in Vietnam.
The letter - an outpouring of grief, anger, and resolve - became the seed for
her work over the next ten years: she traveled to Vietnam, to the place
where Jeff was killed; she met and interviewed scores of other widows, both
Vietnamese and American; and she ultimately created the award-winning film
REGRET TO INFORM, about her experiences.
Her long journey of understanding was guided by the same impulse that led
her to write that first letter and others after it - a compulsion to do
something, to make sense of what had happened in her life, and to
communicate with others about war.
Here you can read excerpts from the letters that Barbara wrote
to her husband Jeff after he died, and gain further insight into the legacy
of war and the powerful film REGRET TO INFORM.
Barbara's letters also inspired the online memorial LETTERS FROM THE
HEART, which allows
visitors to write their own letters to a lost loved one and express their
feelings about war. Read the deeply moving letters that have already been
written, and contribute your own.
To read excerpts from the letters Jeff sent home from Vietnam before he
died, click here.
Letters from Barbara to Jeff
For twenty years I tried to push all thoughts of your death out of my mind.
I did not read about Vietnam, neither articles nor books. I could not see
the famous Vietnam films or the television specials. It's not that I didn't
think of you. For a long time I could think of nothing else, feel nothing
but the pain of your loss. We shared so much from the time I was 14 until
my 24th birthday when I heard you were missing. But thinking of how you
died - that was beyond me, it made me so crazy with rage. Now, finally 20
years later, I want you to know what it was like for me, your widow, in
those long days and months of 1968. And in the years since, how your death
destroyed me, how I rose up from the rubble that had been my life, our life
together, transformed, ultimately stronger, and with a better understanding
of the value of life, because of the pain that I had to endure. So now,
finally, I am ready to tell you what it was like for me to lose you so
suddenly, so needlessly.
Barbara Sonneborn, 20, and her late husband Jeff Gurvitz at a party|
Barbara Sonneborn: I keep imagining myself walking in the places Jeff walked before he was sent out to the jungle. Will I suddenly feel that he passed this particular place? Will the road we take to find the place that he was killed, be the same road that took him into the jungle?
I remember the night before you left for Vietnam. When we were at the
Hilton Hotel, and eating at L'Orangerie, and walking around trying to be
very jolly. San Francisco. You were so alive, so filled with life - how could
you be any other way? How could you not come back? I just couldn't imagine
how it could be any other way. You had to come back. I remember after
getting the news that you were missing, saying if there is a God, I'm
praying to save you. I'll do anything. I'll believe for the rest of my
life. Now, I know I'm not the first one who's ever presented this deal to
God, so it may have fallen on deaf or indifferent ears. But that you were
dead was proof to me of all the existential reading, thinking, and talking
into the night that we had done in recent years during college. Remember
those last four lines that we read again and again of that e.e. cummings
This was, for all eternity, the one drop of life that you and I would ever
Leaning back in my arms
For life's not a paragraph
And death, I think, is no parenthesis.
You crawled out of a foxhole during a mortar attack, risking your life to
save a wounded young man. You won a bronze star and lost your life. What
does that mean, a bronze star in exchange for your life? You were that kind
of a person, a most unique human being. I hated you for doing that for
quite a long time, for losing your life to save other people. I didn't care
how brave or wonderful that was. I just wanted you back in my arms, alive
When I was alone the blackness of the universe would swallow me up. I started
taking sleeping pills almost immediately. I would swallow my pill, sit down
at the kitchen table with my father or mother for company, and wait to
feel drugged. Then I would take a magazine to bed until I just passed out.
I couldn't read anything but a mindless magazine for a long time. If I was
alone, even for a few minutes, I would grab a magazine, just to have words
going into my head so that I didn't have to have my thoughts for company.
Then the hardest part was waking up - the denial and disbelief, the anguish
and rage. You know, Jeff, the feeling, the sudden desperate wish that this
is just a bad dream; it can't really be happening. And then the reality
that it is happening.
Do people ever stop to think that somebody has to prepare these bodies to
be shipped back to their families? Perhaps for the undertaker it's rather
cold and impersonal. But what merciless human being took your wedding ring
off and didn't wash it before it was put into some envelope to be sent to
me so that when it arrived, it was encrusted with mud and blood, along with
your dog tags, all of which were bloody and filthy. I couldn't believe
"they" sent that stuff back to me without washing it. I remember sitting on
the floor and opening up that package, the personal effects of Jeffrey
Gurvitz - rings, watch, wallet, my letters to you.... But the stuff that
was personally on your body, covered in blood, that's what drove me crazy.
Your last lifeblood soaked into the ground in Vietnam, Jeff. That land,
with your blood in it, belongs a little bit to you.
That you could do something as intimate as to die and not share that moment
with me. I remember crossing the United States with my father a few months
later and feeling so angry at you. That you didn't call me up and say,
"Hey, next Thursday I'm going to get killed. You're not going to hear about
it until your birthday. And I hate to deliver that kind of thing to you for
your birthday, but I want to prepare you for this." That's what I was
feeling. You and I had been such a part of each other's fiber from
childhood that it was just beyond my reckoning. That you would go and die
like that... by yourself... without me.
The day of your funeral. Picture Chicago in March. It was a Tuesday, sort
of a white sky, sunny day, winter sunshine, not a bitterly cold day. It
was, in fact, an innocuous day, which was just what I wanted. I didn't want
it to be a beautiful day, so that every beautiful day would remind me of
you. I didn't want your funeral to be on a Monday because I couldn't deal
with Mondays, I thought, ever again. I couldn't stand for spring to come
that year. I couldn't bear it that the trees would bud, the leaves would
unfurl, the flowers would blossom. It seemed like such a vulgar display of
life when you were so dead.
The darkness of your death formed and colored my days. I can mark my
transformation, my freedom, to the time I began swimming in a friend's
pool, about eight years later. Although I certainly had had some very good
periods of time by then, I was still haunted. One night I had a dream that
I was swimming under water in a place filled with light, and that I was
accompanied by streams of red cloth. The dream had such power that as soon
as the stores opened the next morning I went to the local fabric shop, and
discovered a large piece of bright red cotton in the remnant pile. I took
my cloth and my underwater camera to the pool and started photographing the
shapes created by the cloth underwater. They were organic embryonic shapes.
The red was no longer the blood of death, but the blood of birth and life.
Through this work I began focusing on the light rather than the darkness.
Swimming and seeing the light, the beautiful refractions as the light split
apart on the bottom and sides of the pool. This light provided a
transcendent experience for me. Finally I was able to get out of my place
of darkness and explode into that light, experiencing energy buried for many years.
I remember the dream that I had repeatedly. I would be in a house, an unfamiliar house, a place where the
wallboards were torn away and a bloody body, like meat, an unrecognizably
bloodied, skin-torn-away body would be sort of stuffed into the wall. I
would start to scream and scream, and awaken with that terrible choking
scream of a nightmare. It took about eight long years before that dream
stopped returning, and others like it. During that period I experienced,
for the first time in my life, periods of extreme claustrophobia,
particularly in dark places like movie theaters, or awakening at night in a
darkened room. The dreams would sometimes haunt me in the day as intrusive
images. My heart would pound and I would have trouble breathing. Sometimes
I thought I was losing my mind, that I would never be free of this torment.
I would see the mortar exploding into your body again and again and again.
I felt obsessed for years, even after I remarried, with the awful imagery
of your death. But gradually the images dissipated and I was free to live
my life feeling whole again, feeling light and optimism and excitement
about being alive, as I had felt before you were killed, and in some ways
even more so, because now I was much wiser. I had learned some painful
lessons. I knew the sweet and ephemeral preciousness of life, and the true
meaning of living not in the past or future, but only in the present.
4 March, 1992
I am sitting on this airplane waiting to take off for Vietnam. Very unreal.
I can't believe I am doing this until I look down at the middle finger of
my left hand and see your wedding ring: a simple thick gold band,
florentined. I remember the day I gave it to you. And then I remember the
day it was returned to me in an envelope. Covered with blood. I decided I
would bring it with me, to have something that was yours, that was close to
you, to keep it close to me on this journey. Now, my heart beats wildly. I
can't believe I'm actually going to land in Hanoi. Standing in the doorway
of the plane, my heart is pounding. I am smelling the air in the land where
you died. I am a bit numb as I write this, wondering what I will see and
March 24th, 7:00am
A fitful night's sleep, not very surprising, thinking about today,
observing myself in disbelief that I am actually going to be at the spot
where you were killed. I am remembering 24 years ago; thinking about your
dying in Vietnam was like thinking about your dying on another planet. In
the darkness of the days and nights after you were killed, the awful and
awesome and inconceivable reality of your death, grief like an explosion
tearing into me, like the explosion that killed you, my heart was ripped
open, as though I would bleed to death with you. Now those scars which have
taken all these years to heal - picture my heart, just picture it with long
and jagged scars, scars that most days I do not feel after all these
years - but today, on the way to where you took your last breath to where
your heart stopped beating, I am painfully aware of those scars.
Today we passed hundreds of little ponds - all bomb craters. What would it be
like to have war in my own home town; to have bombs dropping day and night,
killing my family; napalm burning up my house; Agent Orange destroying the
redwood and oak forests, poisoning the food that I eat, the water that I
drink; soldiers battling each other nearby as I desperately try to hide my
family and myself?
Rounding a bend, a desolate landscape. A long dead forest, dead for many
years, not burned, but nothing is growing here. Agent Orange was sprayed
here several times. We are all looking around, horrified by the devastation
these many years later. Even in a burned forest, the next year, green
sprouts up. Not here.
We enter the village. At least ten people are waiting to greet us, ushering
us from the blazing heat into a large, cool, blue room with windows on
three sides. I am now accustomed to these welcoming ceremonies, but I am
struck by the sincerity of the welcome in each place, by how surprised they
are that an American Vietnam war widow wants to actually film their story,
by how desperate they are to tell their story. We sip our tea. I tell them
what an honor it is to come to this village, to be welcomed by them.
Two stunningly beautiful women enter. They are village officials, but the
woman in blue, Nguyen Thi, was head of the local Viet Cong - the National
Liberation Front - during the war. Folding and unfolding her hands in front
of her, grim-faced, she looks into my eyes.
One of the men tells me that I
am the first American she has spoken to since the war. She takes a deep
breath and begins. "The war did terrible, terrible damage to this area. 106
out of 107 villages in this district were burned to the ground by the
Americans, some several times. Women were raped and murdered, children were
torn to pieces, old men were stuffed down wells." Her voice is shaking.
She pauses, her elbows on the table, her head in her hands for a moment.
Recomposing herself, she continues, "This area was a free fire zone. That
meant that anything that moved could be shot and often was. Quite frankly,
many people here still hate the Americans." Unlike people in the north who
never saw an American soldier, these people had daily contact with American
troops. Again, a long pause, "But I am glad you have come. We welcome you.
We want the American people to know what suffering took place here. Films
like yours can tell the true story. We know you come as a friend." Her
voice softens, her eyes seeking mine, "I am sorry that your husband had to
Pressing her lips together, she raises her eyes and Nguyen speaks.
"Everything we had was destroyed. Sometimes there was no food for weeks. We
ate leaves and grasses. The water was poisoned by chemicals, but we drank
it anyway. We had to, to survive." Sighing deeply, her voice becomes
vehement, "It is so hard to talk about this. I never talk about it, but the
Americans must know what happened here. I am glad you are here even though
this causes me great pain."
I get up to pour her some tea. I do not know what to say. Anything I could
say seems so paltry. She looks at my face, sees my grief, squeezes my arm.
The room is absolutely silent. There is not even a breeze now through the
They then usher in an older woman who is a widow. As she begins to speak
she bursts into tears, "My husband was bombed. We couldn't even bury him
because there were so many bombs. We tried to collect the pieces of his
body but we had to run and hide." Sobbing, she continues, "Sometimes the
Americans would just come into a village and shoot everybody - women, old
people...children." Her voice rises with anger as she tells me, "If you
could stay for 10 days and nights it would not be enough time for me to
tell you all the terrible things I saw the Americans do during the war. Now
I am exhausted. I am an old lady. These memories cause me such terrible
pain. I must stop. I must rest."
Dung tells me that they want to escort us into the mountains now, to show
me the place where Jeff was killed. Feeling emotionally devastated,
overwrought by this day, I would like to sit and weep with these women,
while the director part of me would like to interview them more fully - hear
every terrible detail of what happened here. We bump through an incredible
terrain, steep drop-offs, ruts like canyons, and the disquieting feeling
that this region looks so like California, so much like the coastal
mountains of Central California in the dry season. I find myself imagining
that millions and millions of years ago California and Vietnam were one
land that split and got separated through the eons by the Pacific Ocean.
Remembering that these brown rocky hillsides and cliffs were covered with
dense jungle when you were here, I am increasingly aware of the scrubby
plants that we pass, none higher than my chest, and a light metallic smell.
A doctor in Hanoi told me that there is still a scent of Agent Orange where
it was heavily sprayed. Dung and our local guides have explained to me that
the spot where the mortar attack took place was less than 4 kilometers from here
up the mountainside across rough terrain. I was asked if I wanted to chance
finding the actual spot. "This would be quite dangerous," Dung explained,
"because the area was heavily mined, and local people are not infrequently
killed or maimed by old mines laid by both sides."
We walk out into the heat. My clothes stick to my perspiration-soaked body.
My head pounds. The sun is like a hot iron pressing down on me, taking any
energy I might have left. I cannot imagine the young soldiers here in full
battle gear, carrying 80-pound packs. Nguyen Thi points up the
mountainside. "See, there, that rocky cliff. To the right of that and up.
That is where I believe it happened. The fighting was very intense at the
end of February, 1968." I feel my heart flip over.
I am at the place where you were killed. My guide is the former Viet Cong
leader of this district. For all I know, she led the attack that killed
you. Now we stand here, no longer enemies, only both of us against war.
Nguyen continues, "I was walking on this road once and the planes came
over; drenching me with Agent Orange. Lots of us were sprayed several
times. We have many health problems. I have terrible arthritis and strange
skin problems. Many people here have died young of cancer - sick suddenly,
then dead. Lots of deformed babies. Lots." Similar to the diseases that
American soldiers are dying of, only so many more Vietnamese are dying.
In a small grass-covered shrine, we light incense to honor the Vietnamese
and Americans who lost their lives nearby. I look over my shoulder to see
up the mountain. Abruptly my mind fills with explosions, fire, bodies from
both sides lying broken and dead. I am reminded of the violent imagery of
your death that flooded my consciousness for years. I feel overwhelmed. My
knees feel rubbery. I am sickened. I just want to fall to the ground and
weep for the tragedy, the awful waste of lives that took place here.
I turn and look back, perhaps for the last time ever, at the place where
you lost your life. A moment of solitude. But no, three women are alongside
me on bicycles. They smile as I look at them, and I smile back and indicate
that I am stopping to look at the view. They stop for a minute, and finally
continue. I walk on, finally alone.
I can't help being annoyed at this kindly man who I see walking just a bit
behind me, obviously guarding me. So much for solitude. His job is to make
sure that I'm OK. I notice that this man is picking flowers along the way.
As we see the jeep approaching in the distance he catches up with me, and
presents me with a bouquet of flaming orange flowers. Smiling, closing his
eyes for a moment, he nods. I am so touched by his gesture of
understanding. We walk together, my friend and I, till the jeep arrives.
The Vietnam Letters of Jeffery Gurvitz
Sunday, 26 November, 1968
I just got back from calling you and it's now 10 o'clock. I want you to
know that I couldn't have made it through the next week without speaking to
you. I miss you very much. It's terrifying for me to think of not seeing
you for a year, a whole year and only 5 days together. Well, I hope the
years to come will be better than the next one, and if I'm with you, I know
they will be.
Right now I'm sitting in the barber shop. There are 5 ahead of me, but a
haircut, massage, and shampoo is only $1.50, so how can I pass it up?
As I was telling you the jungle is scary and beautiful. One night when I
was trying to fall asleep I heard steps a short distance to my left. I
looked out and saw 2 large eyes. It moved on about its business, but I sure
hope I never get any closer to a puma! Yes, I'm sure it was a puma, and
they are as large a cat as a leopard. The strange thing is that the jungle
is truly neutral. It won't hurt you, but it doesn't help you. The animals
will hide from you and even the large deadly ones want no part of you. If
they get curious they come take a look, but there is plenty of food in the
jungle and they don't eat you. (That is what they tell us, and I'm trying
to convince myself.) Well love, sorry I woke you so early, but it was nice
to hear your sleepy voice. I love you very much. Be well. Give my best to
P.S. Can hardly wait until Sunday!
Jan. 6, 1968
I have lost track of the days - and I know it has only been days - and it seems
like an eternity since I last saw you. As tough as it may ever get I will
always think of you and have the will to go on. I truly miss you, your love
and friendship. I hope that when you think of me - often - it is the same.
I am now at what they call the "Charger" academy. It is a refresher course
of all the infantry skills. I'm not sure how long it will last. After that
we will be going back to the 196th to be assigned.
Please write and tell me all about things at home. I'm honestly making an
effort to be newsy and write good letters, but absolutely nothing is
happening over here in this school. We sit in class all day long and hear
poor lectures on subjects we already know.
Well love, needless to say how much I miss you. I think of you all too
often. Until tomorrow...
I love you,
Well, I'm in the field. I got to B company in the afternoon (about 2).
We moved about 800 meters and dug in for the night. There were 4 companies
in the immediate area. Nothing happened at night and this morning we moved
about 500 meters and searched [starting again (it's 6:30)] the area. We
didn't find a thing.
I was taking over for the 1st platoon leader who was back with a minor arm
injury. He came back this afternoon and now I'm exec officer.
It doesn't mean much to you, I'm sure, but we're under operational control
of another battalion now. We should be back in our own area of operation in
a few days.
The company commander seems very sharp. The men, though I don't know many
of them yet, seem eager to do their jobs and easy to get along with.
From now on if you find a letter ending in the middle of a sentence, it's
because a chopper has come in and I want to get it out.
I have a lot to tell you, but it's getting dark, so I'll call it a letter
for now at least, and try to write more in the morning.
Send Kool-Aid in all letters, 1 or 2 packages - different flavors.
Hi lover. Hope you're fine. I told you yesterday that we were under
operational control of another battalion. Here is why. Our Battalion C
company was out here under their control. They stumbled into 2 battalions
of NVA regulars and were really cut up bad. (They lost 17 killed and about
50 wounded but they estimate that they killed 300 NVAs.) So we went in to
take their place. When I got here, B company had been here about 10 days.
Today at 3:30 we are going back to our own area of operation (AO) by
To tell you about what I've been doing - We start out about 7 in the morning
(the fog lifts then and it's light). We move from where we spent the night
to where we intend to search. We search for enemy and their weapons and
rice caches. Then we move back to where we intend to spend the night. We
dig foxholes in case we get mortared and eat. By then it's dark and time to
Every 4th day we get hot chow, and clean clothes. (They don't come on the
same day, but every four days in some order or other.) Every 2 days we get
resupplied with C rations, which is good because we don't have to carry as
Well lover, I sure miss you. Have to stop now, but will write more soon.
Read to my folks and yours. My love to all, especially you.
P.S. Next time I write I'll tell you about the people.
Hi. O how I miss you. It's only been 3 weeks and yet it seems like a year.
Last night was the first time that we have been shot at since I've been
here. Two sniper rounds - no one was hit. There isn't much to tell really - and
I don't have much time - we walk a ways, search a village, then set up for
Today (how different Sunday is here without you) we were sent by
helicopters to a village, and we found about 20,000 lbs. of rice. It's 5:45
now and the beginning of evening is coming into the sky. Vietnam is a
beautiful country. Hills that give way to terraced rice patties, and a rich
abundance of rivers and streams.
I must close now. Send care packages. Beef jerky, cookies, salami, and
anything else that will stay fresh for a long time. Send some soon!
I love you very much,
I was so excited when I received your letter yesterday (dated 12th and
13th) that I almost cried. I haven't heard anything much of the news from
home concerning the war or politics, so please send clippings and articles
as well as your own summations.
I can't tell you how much I miss you. You're my right arm, my best friend,
and my love. That's quite a loss. I feel close to you in spirit, but that
physical longing grows. I don't count days from 355, but from 90, when I
will be eligible to go on R & R and see you. I hope you've looked into both
Hawaii and Japan expense wise. Let me know what you've found.
I am anxious to get that picture of you, but don't send the big one. The
recorder and everything else is back at Chu Lai and I may not get there
until I come in to go on R & R. I have to carry only what is necessary, and
the large picture would be ruined very quickly.
I love you,