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'I don't think I will ever forget the bloody fight': GI's letters provide a glimpse at fog of war

Vietnam has given U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta the personal letters of a soldier who was killed in the Vietnam war in 1969. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

The letter from the frontlines could have been written yesterday.

"Thank you for your sweet card. It made my miserable day a much better one but I don't think I will ever forget the bloody fight we are having," reads a handwritten note to Betty from Steve Flaherty of Columbia, S.C. "RPG rockets and machine guns really tore my rucksack."

But this and other newly discovered letters written to "Betty," "Mother" and "Mrs. Wyatt" weren't sent from Afghanistan, or any other place where American servicemen are deployed now.  They were penned more than 40 years ago before the author, who was with the 101st Airborne, was killed in the northern section of South Vietnam.

The documents were given to the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during a landmark meeting in Vietnam on Monday. Panetta and Vietnam Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh exchanged long-held artifacts collected during the war -- including a small maroon diary belonging to a Vietnamese soldier.

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A letter to Flaherty's mother gives an unvarnished version of life on the battlefield. 

"Our platoon started off with 35 men but winded up with 19 men when it was over. We lost platoon leader and whole squad.” He added, “The NVA soldiers fought until they died and one even booby trapped himself and when we approached him, he blew himself up and took two of our men with him.”

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The obit of Steve Flaherty of Columbia, S.C. published in the State Newspaper on March 30, 1969.

Another letter to his mom reads: "We couldn't retrieve the bodies of our men or ruck sacks and when we brought air strikes, jets dropped napalm and explosives that destroyed everything that was there."

The letter adds: "If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I'm O.K. I was real lucky. I'll write again soon."

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A third letter to Mrs. Wyatt defends the war while spelling out the toll it was taking on the people fighting: "This is a dirty and cruel war but I’m sure people will understand the purpose of this war even though many of us might not agree."

NBC's Chris Jansing reports on retired Col. Jack Jacobs, who served our country in the Vietnam War, suffering countless injuries, and Jacobs' recent return to Vietnam for the first time since the war.

According to U.S. defense officials, Vietnamese forces took Flaherty's letters after his death in March, 1969, and used them in broadcasts during the war.

Vietnamese Col. Nguyen Phu Dat kept the letters, but it was not until last August, when he mentioned them in an online publication, that they started to come to light.

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Early this year, Robert Destatte, a retired Defense Department employee who had worked for the POW/MIA office, noticed the online publication, and the Pentagon began to work to get the letters back to Flaherty's family.

The exchange of documents underscores how much the relationship between Vietnam and the United States has changed in 17 years since the normalization of diplomatic relations, George Little, acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

"It is a reflection of the priority the United States places on people-to-people ties with Vietnam," the newspaper quoted Little as saying. 

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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