An ugly job, but it’s a living

Only the dead have seen the end of war

What happens when we die? Barring some scientific discovery we are all going to die. Regardless of what you believe happens after the end of your mortal life, at some point in your future you are going to stop living and leave behind those who you love – and who love you. Perhaps you believe that you and your loved ones will be reunited on the other side, or perhaps you believe that you become worm food and that’s all she wrote. Whatever the case, there will be this big “you” shaped hole left behind in your current life.

If you could speak to those left behind, and offer some words that might comfort them, what would you say?

Sullivan Ballou tried just before he lead his men into the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run for you Yankees):

July the 14th, 1861
Washington DC

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure – and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows – when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children – is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death — and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles have often advocated before the people and “the name of honor that I love more than I fear death” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar — that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night — amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours – always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.


Ballou fell at Manassas, along with 23 of his men from the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry Regiment.

150 years later and our technical skills in writing have improved from quill and ink to bits, bytes and blogs. Our writing is not quite so formal, or elegant, but humanity hasn’t changed. We still fight wars, we still leave behind the people we love, and we still want to reach out and comfort them in case of our death.

January 04, 2008
Final Post

“I am leaving this message for you because it appears I must leave sooner than I intended. I would have preferred to say this in person, but since I cannot, let me say it here.”

This is an entry I would have preferred not to have published, but there are limits to what we can control in life, and apparently I have passed one of those limits…As with many bloggers, I have a disgustingly large ego, and so I just couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to have the last word if the need arose. Perhaps I take that further than most, I don’t know. I hope so. It’s frightening to think there are many people as neurotic as I am in the world. In any case, since I won’t get another chance to say what I think, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. Such as it is.

What I don’t want this to be is a chance for me, or anyone else, to be maudlin. I’m dead. That sucks, at least for me and my family and friends. But all the tears in the world aren’t going to bring me back, so I would prefer that people remember the good things about me rather than mourning my loss…Sure, all things being equal I would have preferred to have more time, but I have no business complaining with all the good fortune I’ve enjoyed in my life. So if you’re up for that, put on a little 80s music (preferably vintage 1980-1984), grab a Coke and have a drink with me. If you have it, throw ‘Freedom Isn’t Free’ from the Team America soundtrack in; if you can’t laugh at that song, I think you need to lighten up a little. I’m dead, but if you’re reading this, you’re not, so take a moment to enjoy that happy fact.

I suppose I should speak to the circumstances of my death. It would be nice to believe that I died leading men in battle, preferably saving their lives at the cost of my own. More likely I was caught by a marksman or an IED. But if there is an afterlife, I’m telling anyone who asks that I went down surrounded by hundreds of insurgents defending a village composed solely of innocent women and children. It’ll be our little secret, ok?

If you think the U.S. ought to get out tomorrow, don’t cite my name as an example of someone’s life who was wasted by our mission in Iraq. I have my own opinions about what we should do about Iraq, but since I’m not around to expound on them I’d prefer others not try and use me as some kind of moral capital to support a position I probably didn’t support. Further, this is tough enough on my family without their having to see my picture being used in some rally or my name being cited for some political purpose. You can fight political battles without hurting my family, and I’d prefer that you did so.

On a similar note, while you’re free to think whatever you like about my life and death, if you think I wasted my life, I’ll tell you you’re wrong. We’re all going to die of something. I died doing a job I loved. When your time comes, I hope you are as fortunate as I was.

I wish I could say I’d at least started to get it right. Although, in my defense, I think I batted a solid .250 or so. Not a superstar, but at least able to play in the big leagues. I’m afraid I can’t really offer any deep secrets or wisdom. I lived my life better than some, worse than others, and I like to think that the world was a little better off for my having been here. Not very much, but then, few of us are destined to make more than a tiny dent in history’s Green Monster. I would be lying if I didn’t admit I would have liked to have done more, but it’s a bit too late for that now, eh? The bottom line, for me, is that I think I can look back at my life and at least see a few areas where I may have made a tiny difference, and massive ego aside, that’s probably not too bad.

Regardless of the merits of this war, or of any war, I think that many of us in America have forgotten that war means death and suffering in wholesale lots. A decision that for most of us in America was academic, whether or not to go to war in Iraq, had very real consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Yet I was as guilty as anyone of minimizing those very real consequences in lieu of a cold discussion of theoretical merits of war and peace. Now I’m facing some very real consequences of that decision; who says life doesn’t have a sense of humor?

This is the hardest part. While I certainly have no desire to die, at this point I no longer have any worries. That is not true of the woman who made my life something to enjoy rather than something merely to survive. She put up with all of my faults, and they are myriad, she endured separations again and again…I cannot imagine being more fortunate in love than I have been with Amanda. Now she has to go on without me, and while a cynic might observe she’s better off, I know that this is a terrible burden I have placed on her, and I would give almost anything if she would not have to bear it. It seems that is not an option. I cannot imagine anything more painful than that, and if there is an afterlife, this is a pain I’ll bear forever.

I wasn’t the greatest husband. I could have done so much more, a realization that, as it so often does, comes too late to matter. But I cherished every day I was married to Amanda. When everything else in my life seemed dark, she was always there to light the darkness. It is difficult to imagine my life being worth living without her having been in it. I hope and pray that she goes on without me and enjoys her life as much as she deserves. I can think of no one more deserving of happiness than her

Major Andrew Olmsted was the officer in charge of the Military Transition Team assigned to the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division and was deployed to Iraq this past summer. The job was to train and prepare Iraqi Military forces to defend their nation. He was a prolific blogger, posting at his own website and as a blogger/contributor for the Rocky Mountain News.

His final post was written several months ago, finalized in July and the entrusted to a friend with instructions to post it to his blog in the event of his death.


No. 0013-08
January 04, 2008
DoD Identifies Army Casualties

The Department of Defense announced today the death of two soldiers who were supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. They died Jan. 3 in As Sadiyah, Iraq, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked their unit using small arms fire during combat operations. Both Soldiers were assigned to the Military Transition Team, 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan.

Killed were:

Maj. Andrew J. Olmsted, 37, of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Cpt. Thomas J. Casey, 32, of Albuquerque, N.M.

How striking are the similarities between the thoughts of Majors Ballou and Olmsted, separated by a century and a half, pondering the same things. Thinking about the burdens of duty and wondering what will happen if the end comes while serving. Timeless thoughts expressed by men at war throughout time.

I don’t know what the letter writing habits of the ancient Romans were like, but I can imagine a Centurion on the eve of the Battle of Zama wishing he could send a message home. The themes would be the same. The call of service and the obligations of my duty have taken me far from you, and I fear that the next dawn will the my last. There is a conflict between my desire to hold you again and stay here and do what I have committed myself to. Service seems a burden in that light, but it is a burden that I yoked myself to freely. If I fall under its weight you must know that I fell regretting the pain that will come to you, but this is the task, the place and time that I am called and dedicated to. My love for you is too strong to be defeated by death, and if there is some way to reach back across the abyss to hold and protect you, I will find it or spend eternity trying.

4 responses

  1. Articles posted as blogs often serve as an open diary or journal. They perform as a means and a vehicle to examine thoughts which roam about inside your head, sometimes deep thoughts regarding the purpose of life as you have artfully shown through these letters. I’ve heard it said that you can’t improve a situation until you’ve thought about it And then written them down. If all you do is give it a casual nod but never write it down then it gets lost along the way.

    As for the last lines of the post, my beliefs are that the eternities include the family unit; a husband and wife along with their children. We make ourselves available for such unions through our desires to be a family and by the grace of God’s Son and the atonement.

    5 January, 2008 at 12:31

  2. Pingback: Farewell Letters Then and Now « Bull Runnings

  3. I was cautious in planning, but in the heat of action I think I was convinced that I was immortal. There were plenty of times after something bad almost happened to me that I took a moment to think and realized “damn, I almost got killed there.” But there was one moment, at the very end of my career, when I found myself briefly worried for a few seconds. All I could think was that I was going to let my family down if I got killed.

    Thoughts like that are at the core of what I read in Ballou and Olmsted’s letters. Ballou certainly seems convinced that he will be reunited with his family on the other side of the veil that separates death and life. It is the trials and tribulations that their families will have to endure during their separation that weighs so heavily on their hearts. They are conflicts between their love and loyalty to guard and protect their families, and their sense of honor and duty that has placed them in a position in which they might no longer be around to guard and protect their loved ones.

    6 January, 2008 at 22:33

  4. Thank you Lord, for those who serve our nation with such distinction. As a old engineer, who served in other wars, I admire such a person who can see his purpose and recognize those that he loved and cared for. May he rest in peace that we will always remember him and his purpose, and know that they were true…..Bill Nolan, LTC Retired

    7 January, 2008 at 10:08

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