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For a Little Girl and Country: A Memorial Day Reflection


Unlikely Pen Pals

She was in sixth grade that year when she was assigned to a pen pal - SSGT. Walter H. Bucka Jr., a Special Forces medic who was serving in Vietnam. Every classmate received the name of a soldier and sent out their first letters. But my sister Chris and two other kids were the only ones that received a return letter.

Walter wrote to her as often as he could. Chris was smitten, and he often told her that when he received her letters the guys would ask him, "How's your little girlfriend?"

She also received a photo of him smiling broadly, as if all was fun and right in the exotic land he served in. There was no mention of napalm, grenades, tanks, the thwunk-thwunk sound of helicopters, gore and death on the battlefield, nor his many attempts to save lives on the front lines. While he was trying to save a comrade whose gut was blown wide open, Christy was at home riding her new bicycle, and playing hopscotch.

What did a little girl know about war? She knew in theory that soldiers in war shot guns, but her only point of reference really was Hogan's heroes, and perhaps old WW II films where war scenes were much more sanitized than today. But she was not really into that genre of entertainment, so her knowledge of war was next to nothing.


Mutual Delight

Walter embraced my sister from that far away land, despite the horrors of war. He wrote tender letters, telling her about his family and life before entering the military, and explaining the culture of Vietnam, complete with gifts. Most notable was a royal blue bonnet with flowers embroidered across the brim. If you twisted the brim, it changed the shape of the hat. It was probably a cheap, touristy item for all we knew -perhaps not - but to Chris, myself, and our little sister Jamey it looked like it was designed for the rich or for royalty. He also sent her Vietnamese money. We'd stare at it and marvel at how strange it was. Chris cherished those gifts and guarded them well, as she did his letters. Today, forty-eight years later, she still has them, wrapped with care and snuggled safely in her hope chest.

For three years Walter took time on leave or at camp when the bullets were silent for a few hours to write to an ordinary little girl who had a crush on him back in the states. His letters showed his delight to have her in his life. He showed interest in what interested her. I believe that my sister's letters, and his moments writing to her, were like a reprieve on an oasis in the middle of that horrific war. In those moments, I imagine he took joy in knowing home, normalcy, and love of friends and family (and little Christy) were awaiting when he would one day return.


One day a letter came for Chris. She wasn't sure who it was from, but she opened it and learned that on February 6, 1970, Walter had been killed in action. I watched tears stream down her face. We all felt like we'd been kicked in the gut. Chris' dream of meeting her hero and friend was shattered. How could this happen? This was too hard. It seemed surreal.

We never talked much about Walter after that. It was too painful. But deep inside we all appreciated the time and care he invested in being Chris' pen pal and friend. Today we are grateful for her role in his life and the lengths he went to reciprocate. It's interesting, but a little sorrowful, to imagine what it would have been like had he come back home and met up with his "little girlfriend." It would've been so sweet.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

SSGT Walter H. Bucka sacrificed his life so his "little girlfriend" pen pal could live in a free land. His devotion to her as a friend was enough in and of itself, but he took it a step further by giving up his life. This memorial day we honor him and the millions of men and women, from the revolutionary war to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who sacrificed their lives for this country - for little girls and boys, and men and women who enjoy living in a free nation.

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