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Love letters Military couples go the distance to stay connected during deployments

February 14, 2019

On the back of a military ready-to-eat meal marked “corned beef hash,” a U.S. Marine stationed overseas in late 1980s began a letter to his wife back home: “How do you like my stationary?”

The rugged cardboard was all Joe Coco could find to write on, but thousands of miles away, his wife Linda eagerly awaited the letter’s arrival.

Corresponding with loved ones back home is a time-honored tradition for U.S. military men and women. With the evolution of technology and culture, the ways military families stay in touch have changed, bringing with them new benefits and challenges. At the heart of it all is love.

The commitment to communication during a deployment has retained its importance throughout time.

The early years of Joe and Linda Coco’s marriage are documented in the bundles of letters they’ve kept over the years, totaling 824 altogether. The Whitefish couple’s collection of letters includes quick notes written on radio message pads, decorative stationary filled with Morse code, loving messages of longing too personal to share and faded responses written via typewriter.

Joe, a former Marine whose eight and a half years of service took him across the country and away from home for about years total, called the letters the lifeblood of his and his wife’s relationship during their time spent apart.

“Whatever the rhythm and heartbeat of being in person was really reflected in the letters,” Linda said. “What I really noticed about me was I was whining in the letters and I was cracking jokes in the letters, and I think we were just really ourselves in the letters.”

The couple wrote each other every day without fail, but the mode of communication had its challenges. Because mail did not always get sent the day it was written, sometimes Joe’s letters would pile up and then, days later, reach Linda in a jumbled stack.

While Joe found an endless supply of letter material in the different cultures, people and situations he encountered overseas, Linda said she often struggled to find enough to fill a page every day.

“You run out of things to say,” Linda said. Nevertheless, she kept writing.

“I can tell you that at mail call, I was a rock star because I got tons of letters compared to other people,” Joe said. And he was faithful to respond, whether from a Desert Storm foxhole or from training schools stateside.

“A lot of those letters were just quick notes, but I tried to make the effort every day to do it,” he said.

The challenges of separation so early on in their marriage, the struggles of caring for two young children alone and the frustration at the slowness of communication all seeped into the couple’s letters.

More importantly, though, they made sure to remind each other in each letter that they missed each other, were committed to each other and loved each other.

During the Vietnam War, Marine Daryl Russell and his wife Pat, of Whitefish, faced additional challenges in a time when the mail service ran slower than the news reports.

“When he was in Vietnam, learning about things over the news was ridiculous,” Pat recalled.

During Daryl’s two deployments, Pat would send newspaper clippings about disturbing events allegedly taking place in Vietnam, which she said often contrasted with Daryl’s letters.

“Those things were really hard,” she said. “I had to just keep focused.”

One of the most important aspects of getting through the deployments, Pat said, was staying connected to other military wives who could offer support and distraction.

Along with keeping up with their two children’s school activities and his wife’s activities, Daryl said he always wanted to know Pat had the support she needed from the military community in his absence.

Daryl and Pat grew up together, best friends from the time they were kids. The couple married at the age of 18 in January 1964, after Daryl enlisted in the Marine Corps.

According to Pat, she knew what she was getting into when she married a Marine, but the news of his first deployment in 1968 still came as a surprise.

For her, the first deployment proved the hardest. The children were still young and the time passed slowly.

The letters they sent one another, she said, kept the young family connected and encouraged from day to day.

She read from one he sent from South Korea: “My dearest love,” he wrote, “I wish that I was with you now, holding you in my arms. I could use you to keep me warm, for one. The sun is finally shining bright, and it’s clear outside for a couple of hours anyway. The temperature is 10 degrees, with the wind blowing 10-15 knots, making for a wind-chill factor of 20 below. How’s that for cold weather?”

Pat said they all made the best of the separation.

“It’s just those kind of things that really kept me going,” Pat said. “Day by day, I think, day by day is how you get through.”

Now, after 55 years of marriage and friendship, the couple looks back fondly of their time in the service.

“I think between the two deployments, it brought us closer together,” Daryl said.

The choice to support her military spouse resonated also with Kathryn Ryen, 31, whose husband Trygve has been deployed with the National Guard to Afghanistan since last May.

She wasn’t thrilled with his decision to join the National Guard after he left the Navy to be a husband and father, but said she is proud of his service. His deployment was unexpected, Kathryn said, and they stay in touch. Unlike military couples of decades past, the Ryens have access to real-time communication via video chat and text message.

Though Kathryn said they both know how fortunate they are to be able to keep in touch with technology, she sometimes feels the constant communication comes with its disadvantages, too.

“There have been times when I have texted him or over video chat I’ve just shared with him that I’m overwhelmed or I’m frustrated for whatever reason, and that’s unfair to him because he’s deployed,” she said. “He has a lot that he has to focus on, and he’s not needing to worry about what’s going on at home.”

Her husband, however, always responds with acknowledgment and support for the challenges she faces on the home front.

“He says all the time that we have the hardest job, the people who stay home,” she said.

“He’s very much like ‘I get it’ and ‘You’re dealing with a lot because of my deployment, so whatever you need, I’m going to support you,’” she said.

Communication, Kathryn said, is key, but not always possible, even with today’s technology.

Typically, they text each other as they’re going to bed and video chat three times a week, but sometimes, Kathryn said, he doesn’t pick up.

“Really, if I don’t hear from him, I just have to go with ‘oh, he’s busy,’” she said. “That’s part of being in the military. You can’t ask questions.”

Though Kathryn and her 2-year-old daughter, Teagan, don’t know when Trygve will be coming home, they keep him a part of their daily conversations with the same faith that drives other wives of military service members - he will come home.

As Pat and Daryl’s daughter said in a letter she sent to him nearly 50 years ago, “We’ll be together again. We’ll be together again. Oh, my daddy is gone, but he’ll soon be home. We’ll be together again.”

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.