Now that Americans are once again dying in a distant conflict, Utahns who suffered the terrible loss of a loved one during the nation's previous war have some advice about how to cope with combat deaths.
"Whenever we're together we talk about him, anything we can remember about him - maybe what he would have done if he was with us," said Julie Hill, Spanish Fork. Her brother Capt. Robert Alan Rex, 26, from Provo, was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War on Dec. 8, 1968.Hill and others who have lost family members in combat said one way to come to grips with this personal tragedy is to talk about it, recognize it, attend services, realize the man or woman really is dead.
That was true during the horror of the Vietnam War, and it's true today for people whose friends and relatives are dying in the Persian Gulf war.
"He's still listed as missing in action, because he was the last one to drop his ordnance, and as the others circled and turned around, they just saw his plane impact into the mountainside," Hill said. "They didn't see if he had ejected."
That uncertainty made it even harder to cope, as did not having a chance to experience the sense of finality of a burial.
The other pilots couldn't tell what happened to Rex's F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber. "However, the pilots that were with him said there was a lot of heavy ground fire at the time," she said.
"I was awfully young when it happened," she said. "It's difficult, especially where he's still missing, if you don't have remains come home and put to rest."The family copes by remaining close and talking about Rex a great deal. He and his wife, Pat, had a daughter who was 18 months old when his plane crashed. Another was born shortly afterward.
"We like to tell them everything we remember so they can get some sense of what he was like," Hill said.
Arch and Elon Widdison, West Bountiful, have great sympathy for the families of others who lost sons in war. Their son, I. Scott Widdison, was killed on May 12, 1968, in South Vietnam.
Stationed in an observation bunker, he and 12 other infantrymen were able to see what was going on in a remote valley. Around 3 a.m., they saw that the valley was alive with Viet Cong troops.
The VC threw hand grenades into the bunker where the men were holed up. Of the 13, only three escaped. For several months, Widdison was listed as missing. His body was never recovered.
"I guess the thing that helped us the most is our philosophy of life," said Arch Widdison. "We are LDS, and we have a different concept of death than a lot of people do.
"We feel that death is not the end of everything. Of course, you can't give that kind of advice to everybody, because other people don't look at things the same way we do."
Elon Widdison added, "The thing that helped me a lot is the people who let us know that they cared." Some people they didn't even know heard about Widdisons' loss through the newspapers and offered sympathy. "And that helped," she said.
"We got letters and cards from people clear across the United States that we had never heard of," her husband said.
Another thing that helped is that the family wasn't confronted with the kinds of hostile anti-war actions that went on elsewhere in the country. "We never got any harassing calls or letters like other people did. All the correspondence we got was sympathetic," he said.
For a time when they were children, Ted Livingston and his cousin Clive Garth Jeffs lived together, and the children were almost like brothers. But the family was torn apart on March 12, 1971, when Jeffs, who had lived in Salt Lake City and Price, was shot down in an F-5 fighter.
"It was devastating," said Livingston, who lives in Pleasant Grove. "We were all taking it pretty hard.
"His wing man saw him parachuting into the jungle, so we held out hope for a long time that he was alive. But his name never turned up on any prisoners list or anything like that."
Realizing that the area was rugged, mountainous, covered thickly with rain forests, the family decided Jeffs may not have survived the landing. The 28-year-old was a first lieutenant, officially promoted to captain while he was listed as missing in action. He is now listed as missing, presumed dead.
"The advice that I'd give to people . . . is to be sure and attend all the memorial services, the funerals, dedications of memorials, everything that has to do with the death of a loved one in combat. All those things provide a real catharsis for people."
After Jeffs died, Livingston did not attend all of the memorial services he could have and today he wishes he had. It would have made it easier to cope, he believes.
Recently, that changed. He was on the board of directors of the group that erected Utah's Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the Capitol.
The memorial "helped a lot of people like me. It helped me deal with it a lot. For one thing, because of my involvement with the Utah memorial, I did pay a visit to the wall (the National Memorial) in Washington, D.C.
"That experience helped me to begin dealing with it."
Livingston has another piece of advice for people who lose loved ones in combat: "Don't stop writing letters for a while to the person that's been killed."
Because of the memorial's effect, he wrote Jeffs a couple of letters talking about feelings.
"It sounds crazy to write letters to somebody that's been dead for a couple of years, but it helped me to get over my frustrations over it."
People who lose relatives in the Persian Gulf war should write a letter to that person. "Get their feelings all out. Boy, it'll sure help them move on."