Letter to My Past Self – John Holland

John J. Holland Jr.

John currently resides in West Warwick, RI. He entered military service in 1967 and retired in 1994 with the rank of Major. He Served in Vietnam, South Korea, Hawaii, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Panama and various bases around the United States. Military specialties were Special Forces, Infantry, Communications/Electronics, Logistics, and Plans/Operations/Training. He enjoys working out at the gym, reading, computers, and golf. He has three grown children with children of their own.

Dear Jay,

It is April of 1970. Welcome home and congrats on your making it back home from Vietnam. What a journey! You left home a little over a year ago not knowing what was in store for you or how you would react to it. You knew that you were prepared in terms of training to do your job but weren’t sure about whether you would do the right things when called upon in a crisis. As it turned out, you did what was necessary when needed and maybe just a little bit more. You spent many days and nights in the field. You saw the enemy up close on occasion. You heard him speak. You smelled his cigarettes. You laid low and covered up while he searched for you and your comrades. You will always remember what it was like to be scared shitless! Sometimes, for no good reason, you will find yourself with your fists coiled so tight that your fingernails will cut the palms of your hands and your eyelids are closed so tight that they hurt because you know full well that this might be the end of you. What you don’t expect is that you would be experiencing these things while lying in your old bed in your old bedroom in the house you grew up in in good old Harmony, Rhode Island.  It’s only been one night, what will tomorrow bring? Trust me when I tell you, there will be many more nights like this one.

It’s your first full day home, and you’re wondering what to do first. Who to call, who to visit? As you make the rounds throughout the old town and say hello to old friends everybody seems strangely different than you remember them. Long hair, beards and a strange look in their eyes when they look at you. Or is it the way you look at them? You called the girl you thought was waiting for you, who wrote you every now and then but whose letters became scarcer as time went on. She came to see you as soon as you called her. However, there was a strangeness undefined that ruined the moment. She prattled on about the war and how it was unjust and cruel and so needed to end. You felt your excitement at seeing her, someone you thought you really loved, begin to drain away. You felt repelled. You remembered your experience with the anti-war demonstrators at the airport in Seattle as you were waiting for your flight to come home and just thought “oh my God, not here too?” So, you hardened your already hardened heart a little more and moved on. Something you learned during the war when you lost somebody.

It didn’t take long for you to figure out that you were by yourself while surrounded by a loving family, childhood friends, and familiar environs. You felt uncomfortable but couldn’t figure out what was missing. Everything you thought that mattered to you was all around you, yet it didn’t satisfy your needs. You missed the rough and tumble, the grind, of life in the boonies and its daily challenges. How was that possible? All you ever dreamed about while over there was coming back home. Those images got you through some rough moments. Now you’re here and it’s not anything like you dreamed it would be like. You no longer have anything in common with these people. You’re tired of dueling with your dad who seems hellbent on reestablishing himself as the traffic cop in your life. Always with the advice, always with the rules! Time to move on, again!

So, after a 40 day leave from the Army, you’ll soon be on your way to Fort Devens, MA, which should be your last duty station. You are looking forward to being close to home, because even though you have mixed feelings about home when you are there, you hope that the more time you spend there will gradually change your perspective about civilian life. Going home on the weekends will help you feel more comfortable there as the memories of the war begin to hopefully fade into the past. Of course, things are never that simple.

Jay, it is at this point that I want to caution you about some events that will take place in your life. Just outside of Fort Devens there is a dance club called The Mohawk Club. It is really the only place in the immediate area where soldiers and civilians can mingle, drink, and dance. First, and foremost, you have never ever spent much time in an environment like that. Before Vietnam, your drinking and socializing habits were pretty simple. While there were bars, etc. in Fayetteville outside Fort Bragg, you almost never had enough money to frequent those places plus, admit it, those bars were full of professional women who only wanted your company if you could afford to pay for it. There were no wholesome young local girls to chase and spend time with like you’ll find at The Mohawk Club. Also, you don’t have much experience with alcohol other than a few hangovers from drinking cheap 3.2% beer in the barracks or at the Enlisted Men’s Club. Alcohol and girls can be an overwhelming challenge if you are not accustomed to that world, and you are not.

It is now May 1970. You have reported for duty with the 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Devens which has just been relocated there from Germany. There are a lot of other recent returnees from Vietnam being assigned to the 10th Group in order to bring the unit up to strength. You even know some of these guys from the Vietnam, so you’ll find yourself in a setting where you have more in common with the people around you than you do at home. One of the things the guys like to do is to go out at night and visit The Mohawk Club because there are lots of local girls and plenty of cheap drinks. You don’t really know how to dance, and the music is a little different than what you were familiar with before you went away. But it’s fun and something to do. Girls will sometimes ask you to dance which is something you look forward to.

Beware! In the very near future, you will be asked to dance by a woman who will smile, ask you your name, and invite you to sit with her and her friends. Notice that I said WOMAN, not girl. She will dazzle you by paying attention only to you. She’ll even buy you a drink now and then and you will somehow find it easy to converse with her. She seems to hang on every word you say. Wow! Nothing else or anybody else seems to matter but this woman. Night after night you meet her at the club and eventually you will become intimate. You have never experienced anything like this before. She wants only you and you can’t get enough of your time together. As time goes by, you will forget about your friends and spend all your time with this woman. You’ll stop going home on weekends. You will give very little thought to the future that you had discussed with your parents after getting out of the Army. Using the GI Bill to go to college had been something that you were looking forward to. You are blind to reality. You have fallen madly in love and you’re thinking of marriage! You hardly even notice it when she drops the bomb and says that she has two children at home. She is also older than you are by a few years, but you don’t care. All you see is that marvelous chest, those long legs, that sultry voice telling you that there is no other for her than you. Months will have gone by, and she’ll never say anything about her children until she has her hooks into you. You don’t care because all you see is her! You take her home to meet your parents. Your dad takes you aside and says no, don’t do this! She is not for you! You are making an error in judgement that will come back to haunt you down the road.

At this point, Jay, you will have the opportunity to smarten up and realize that you have been had. Listen to your father, for once, and realize that his words are meant to counsel you out of concern, not to criticize you. Now would be an appropriate time to walk away, lick your wounds, and get on with your life. Please, I’m begging you, walk away and save yourself some real pain that will accumulate over the next dozen years. You are about to walk into a minefield while wearing blinders and ear plugs!

As you read this, you are probably wondering what business is it of mine, to interfere in your love life, your plans for marriage, your plans for bliss? Well, let me tell you a few things that might make a difference in how you see things. First, you are not thinking clearly and using the facts that are plain to see if you would only open your eyes and use your head instead of your sexual attraction for this woman. She is several years older than you and has a different way of looking at things. Her priorities are vastly different than yours. You haven’t even really thought about priorities, have you? What are they? What is important to you as a veteran, as a young man? She has two children. Are you ready to be a parent two times over at the ripe old age of 21? You barely know the children and they don’t know you. How will you support them on your paltry military paycheck? Where will you live? The list of questions is endless, Jay, and you’d better start thinking hard about what you are about to do. This doesn’t affect just you.

This letter is a lifeline. Please grab hold and be pulled to calmer, more rational waters. I have learned the value of critical thinking when attempting to solve an issue, resolve a situation that has larger implications than my own selfish desires. When I came home from the war, I was closed off from most external stimuli because I had learned to focus on my immediate surroundings for survival. That instinct served me well in dangerous situations because there was little time for feelings or worrying about what might happen tomorrow. Right now was what mattered, and I learned to live in that world for as long as I needed to. Remember, Jay, I have been where you are now. You are still living in survival mode. You are blocking out any thoughts beyond what you are experiencing now and that is affecting your ability to think through a situation critically. Critical thinking is assigning an argument both a positive and negative spin, weighing the pros and cons, and coming to a solution that best fits what is going on in your life. The pros and cons may be external stimuli such as input from your dad and maybe some friends who see what is going on and want the best for you. You must take off the blinders, pull out the ear plugs and see and hear what is actually going on around you. You are no longer walking in the jungle constantly on alert for what is going on in the immediate area. Look down the road and visualize where you want your life to go. Please do it before it’s too late.

In closing, I would also like to pass on to you the importance of continuing your formal education. Regardless of how you proceed with your current romantic designs, you will need to grow intellectually which will aid in attaining maturity as you go forward. You will find that there is more color, more depth to people, places, and things that can only be attained through the learning process and, in particular, exposure to the fine arts, the humanities. This is what I’ve learned over the course of the last year through my studies through the Providence Clemente Veterans Initiative (PCVI) Program which is a higher-level education curriculum designed to present instruction in the humanities (art, literature, history, etc.) to veterans. As part of the curriculum, my fellow veterans and I were exposed to the writings of some of the ancient world’s greatest philosophers, playwrights, and poets. Of special note to me was an allegory penned by Plato who lived and worked some 2500 years ago. An allegory is a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life. In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato described a process in which, I believe, a being may be lifted from a state of ignorance to a state of awareness through the efforts and experience of another being who has been exposed to the light of knowledge and who feels compelled to return to the ignorant one in order to teach that being that there is more to existence than what that being has experienced to date. The only reason I am able to express myself to you as I have in this letter is because of the critical thinking process which has been reawakened in me through formal academic discipline. I challenge you to give weight to what I have laid out before you. Rash, emotional decisions made in the heat of the moment will not serve you well. Take care, my friend.


Jay Holland

John after returning from a mission
Jay after returning from his second operation with the team in 1969