Vietnam War pen pals meet

Posted 11/10/11

Sometime after he returned from the brief leave in Australia, he sent Marilyn a letter.

The 21-year-old Texan was thinking he might have a budding romantic interest back in the states. That idea was quickly quashed when Marilyn wrote back and …

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Vietnam War pen pals meet


U.S. soldier Stanley Weldon Holmes Jr. was waiting to begin an R&R leave at the Denang, Vietnam, airport when he happened to pick up a pocket-sized Western that would change his life.

It wasn’t the words of author Louis L’Amour that stuck with him — today, Holmes can't even recall what book it was — but more than 40 years later, he still remembers the request for a pen pal on the back cover from Marilyn Thull, Star Route, Belfry, Mont. “I never forgot this name in the back of the book. I could always see that,” Holmes recalls.

Sometime after he returned from the brief leave in Australia, he sent Marilyn a letter.

The 21-year-old Texan was thinking he might have a budding romantic interest back in the states. That idea was quickly quashed when Marilyn wrote back and said she didn’t think her parents were going to approve.

“Stanley was all interested in this hot little chick and then when he writes me, he finds out I'm 11,” laughed Marilyn — now married as Marilyn Thull Nelson and a Ralston resident.

At the direction of their teacher, Mrs. Cooper, Marilyn’s class at the Clark Elementary School had sent books as Christmas presents to the troops serving in the Vietnam War. It was a couple years later, in November 1969, that Holmes sifted through a box of literature, happened upon the Western that Marilyn had sent and became her pen pal.

Holmes remembers only some details of the letters from the Wyoming girl with a Montana address. He mostly remembers the relief the writings from home brought to him in a foreign war zone.

“When I’m reading something like a book, I’m there,” said Holmes. Marilyn’s letters brought him to her family’s farm in Clark — gathering eggs, feeding the pigs, and waiting for her brother to bring over the milk cows.

It was all a welcome relief from what he was doing in Vietnam.

Was the war like how it was depicted in the movie “Platoon,” Holmes asks rhetorically? Yeah, but Oliver Stone’s film is missing the smell of death and gunpowder. And the sounds.

“The sound of young men screaming for their mother, their girlfriends or their wives? They didn’t put that in the movie,” Stanley said.

He worked as a radio operator, relaying communications from a forward observer in the jungle, checking with the companies to make sure there were no troops in the area, then calling in 155 Howitzer shells with a 50-meter kill radius.

“You see things happen to people that are there one minute and gone the next,” he said. Just a few days after he returned to Vietnam from his R&R in Australia, Holmes’ best friend was killed in front of him, “and it wrecked me.”

That’s the context in which young Marilyn's letters were arriving.

“I can’t tell you the amount of peace that comes over you when read something that takes your mind off what you're doing and where you're at,” Holmes said.

Marilyn Nelson, for her part, doesn't remember anything she wrote, just her excitement at having someone to write to.

“I have no clue what I wrote or anything at that age, but I always remembered Stanley Holmes,” she said.

Holmes — who has gone by Weldon since the war — didn’t forget Marilyn, either. It was about two years ago that Holmes wondered aloud to his wife, Deb, what had happened to the young Marilyn Thull.

“She (Deb) tells me, ‘If you want to know something, just Google it,’” Holmes recalled, and so he did.

Stanley found contact information for a James Thull in Montana. As it turned out, Mr. Thull had no relation to Marilyn, but was a research librarian at the Montana State University Library. He offered to help locate the girl Stanley remembered.

It wasn’t long before Thull (the researcher) reported back with some good news: he’d found a Marilyn Thull Nelson on Facebook who was living in Wyoming — and only a short distance from the Belfry, Mont., address that Stanley remembered.

Holmes nervously left a message on Marilyn Thull Nelson’s answering machine, nervously explaining that he was looking for someone who had sent a book to Vietnam.

“I was wondering if you might be that person. If you are, please give me a call back. If not, I hope you’ll accept my apologies for bothering ya’ll,” the Texan said on the message, one that Marilyn has saved.

It was only a minute later that Stanley would leave another message.

“Yeah, it’s me again. I forgot to leave my phone number,” he said on the machine.

She called him back and they talked, him crying on the phone.

“He said, ‘You don’t know how long I’ve been looking for you,’” Nelson recalled.

Stanley said he struggled with anger, fitful nights and too much smoking and drinking after returning from Vietnam to an ungrateful public and a government that wasn’t there for him.

“People don’t realize that you train someone to kill, and you don’t train them how to re-enter life ... and to expect you to be, ‘Hey, Mr. Joe,’” Holmes said.

It was years later, seeing the name of his best friend killed in action inscribed on a traveling Vietnam memorial, that the healing started. With the love of his wife Deb, prayer and help from a doctor, he got his demons under control.

Getting back in touch with Nelson two years ago was a part of the healing, but they didn’t immediately meet in person.

Nelson wasn’t interested in white-knuckle driving in big Texas cities (“I’m from Clark, Wyoming,” she laughed) and the Holmeses didn’t have the money.

But things changed this spring in a series of fortunate events that they believe was the clear work of God.

Holmes and his wife hadn’t wanted to go to church on Mother’s Day Sunday in May, but did anyway. It was there they learned a friend’s son happened to be getting ready to head back to Telluride, Colo. Instead of buying their son a bus ticket and wishing him well, the family had the Holmeses take the young man back to Colorado — helping pay the way for Holmes to finally meet his pen pal.

“He (called and) said, ‘Are you ready?’” Nelson recalled. “And I said, ‘Omigosh, I’ve got to clean my house!’”

There was no need to be nervous. Meeting and hosting the Holmeses for a week in May turned out to be like welcoming family members.

“She (Nelson) came over running like a little girl, 11 years old, and hugged me,” Holmes said.

During the trip, they visited the Buffalo Bill Dam, Marilyn's old home, her old school and — in an answer to Nelson’s prayers — saw a stunning amount of wildlife in Yellowstone National Park.

It continued a trend of things just working out right: Nelson says it was only a week or two before Holmes called her that she had happened to change her Facebook profile from “Marilyn Nelson” to “Marilyn Thull Nelson.” That switch was what allowed the Montana researcher to track her down.

Holmes cites the presence of God in Nelson’s decision to send that Louis L’Amour novel to Vietnam in the first place.

“I believe that God’s all through this,” he said while sitting on Nelson’s couch in May.

“If he wasn’t in it, there’s just no way, no way. You’d say there’s too many coincidences,” he said.

Holmes hopes their story will bless others, encourage them to listen for God’s voice and maybe do something for someone serving in the military.

“It might make them want to write a serviceman, or send a box ... or even just say a prayer for them,” he said.