For years, Evie Sweet-Hurd's mother kept her late son's letters from Vietnam in a box that moved from place to place with her. No one in the family opened the box. Too many memories, too much pain.
But in June 2006, Sweet-Hurd, who now had possession of the box, decided she wanted her children - Caitlin, 19, and Jeff, 22 - to know their late uncle, Donn Sweet, a gregarious, upbeat, witty man who perished at the age of 26 in the Vietnam War. The result of Sweet-Hurd's emotional journey into the box of letters is "His Name was Donn: My Brother's Letters from Vietnam."
The book chronicle's Donn's life as a soldier as told though his writings back home to his mother in Virginia over a period of nine months, the time he served in Vietnam before his death on July 25, 1958. Sweet-Hurd, who holds a PhD in English, offers up her own observations about Donn, the war and their family after several of the letters. Sweet-Hurd said for years the grief she carried for her brother paralyzed her and she knew she'd have to record her thoughts immediately after reading each letter.
"If I read them all through without writing, I'm not sure I'd be writing at all. So, I take the reader with me. I wasn't sure it would come out anything like a book," said Sweet-Hurd, a Conyers resident.
Growing up in New York and then Virginia, Sweet-Hurd idolized her brother, six years her senior. She describes him as a funny guy, who radiated youthful energy and had a touch of mischievousness. He took on an even more important role when Sweet-Hurd lost her father at age 12.
"My dad had died and my brother had such a huge personality that I just thought he was the world. He was very nurturing," said Sweet-Hurd. "Because his personality was so gigantic and charismatic, people just loved him and wanted to be around him. I thought he was the be all and end all."
Donn's humor shines through in the letters, such as in his affectionate, if dark-humored, nickname for his mother - he calls his mother "Toombie" because she is overweight and he thinks this will lead to an early death - or his special names for his 1962 pearl-white Porsche - "The Marshmallow" and "Patti." He thanks his mother profusely for all the Playboy magazines she sends him and chats about the various people who write and send him packages. He laughs about a friend who sends him a bottle of whiskey inside of a loaf of bread and another who tries to send him a banana (it looked like a piece of liver by the time it reached him, he writes).
In between the chit chat he intersperses the reality of fighting the war in Vietnam. He often lists the number of dead and wounded, both enemy and friend. He talks of horrid conditions - maggots in the latrine, rats in his bunker, continual diarrhea, mud that covers his body in the rainy season and dust that burns his eyes during the dry season.
Sweet-Hurd said that, through the letters, she learned a lot about her brother that she never knew before, some of it good, some of it disturbing. Through his letters, it's clear that Donn is a dedicated soldier who likes to be on the offensive, eliminating as many of the enemy as possible. Being a bit of a technology buff, Donn is constantly recording his experiences at war through photos and film. He thinks nothing of it to take photos of people he has killed.
"I was horrified at some of the comments and his taking photos of the dead," said Sweet-Hurd.
A fellow soldier, who has read the book and who fought alongside Donn, told Sweet-Hurd that the distance Donn put between him and the results of war is a natural defense and a matter of survival for some.
"He said 'I know that kind of emotional detachment was a necessary part of our existence. I hope you don't think it was anything more than that,'" said Sweet-Hurd.
When Sweet-Hurd learned of her brother's death as a sophomore at Duke University, she felt anger, then depression.
"I really felt hollow, like I was observing my life, going to class and trying to get through. I felt like I didn't have any emotions," said Sweet-Hurd.
Over the decades, Sweet-Hurd's anger has dissipated somewhat but recurs when people speak nonchalantly about war, particularly the Iraq War, and don't grasp the devastation it causes in families and communities.
"I just don't think people realize what's happening when you send these young kids, or anybody, to war. It's just so horrific and yet it's done," said Sweet-Hurd.
Donn, a first lieutenant, lost his life on a search and destroy mission, during which he was dropped into enemy territory in order to radio back instructions on how to position artillery. He died from wounds sustained during an enemy mortar attack, but not before advancing to within 50 yards of the enemy in battle.
The Army awarded Donn the Silver Star for gallantry in action, the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service, the Purple Heart, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, two campaign stars and the National Defense Service Medal.
Sweet-Hurd said that their mother, Marion Sweet, now 96, accepted her son's death and asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to an orphanage in Vietnam, something Donn would have wanted. Mrs. Sweet recently read Evie's book and offered up her perspective.
"She said 'You know, he had such a terribly tough time over there but now he's a hero and there's something to be said for that,'" said Sweet-Hurd.
Those interested in ordering a copy of "His Name was Donn," which sells for $16.95, can visit www.amazon.com or purchase the book through Barnes & Noble bookstore.