Letters From War and Drawing “The Line Between Respect and Caution”

I find myself revisiting all of the correspondence from my deployments. I’ve spent the last year reviewing letters and emails in chronological order—from the day I arrived in Iraq in 2003, as an Army soldier, to the moment my tour was done in 2004—trying to understand why I wrote one specific letter to my mother. And more importantly, what was happening in my life that pressed me to mail it home.  

I know I had not told my mother the complete story about myself and I could no longer keep what was really happening a secret. Instead of the prescribed narrative of the everyday life of a young and extremely tired soldier that I routinely sent her, I wrote a confessional and something happened that made me do it.

Yvette Pino shuffles through her saved letters, notebooks, and photos from Iraq. Photo courtesy Denita Long

Yvette Pino shuffles through her saved letters, notebooks, and photos from Iraq. Photo courtesy Denita Long

When I wrote letters, I wanted to convey what I saw on the streets, how the air smelled, and what that part of the world sounded like, as if I were telling stories over coffee. It was imperative that I made my letters as detailed as possible so my mother could imagine herself there right with me. 

Now When I Think About Valentine’s Day, I Think About Grenades

It had been nine years since she had been in a car accident that had left her a quadriplegic, and I truly felt like I was writing an adventure book for her to use in the lonely hours and days that she spent immobile, in her bed, staring longingly out of her bedroom window. My pages had a little bit of comedy, a little bit of humanity, and a little bit of reality. I really tried to spin the negative into learning moments or opportunities to better myself. And then came the email that I sent on Aug 13, 2003:

“So, the world is indeed real and yes we are all vulnerable to its tragedies—none of us is immune from the wrath. It was a sad day for my unit yesterday—I cannot talk about it, but we must all realize that it is inevitable that we could exist out here without seeing pain or tragedy or a loss of innocence that can never be renewed. I have been briefed this week that my relationship with the locals is too personal—apparently, I am being too humane on a humanitarian mission. These people I am told are the same people that will attack you at night—they know where you sleep, they know your routines, they know you miss mama. My values have once again been skewed and I am uncertain where to draw the line between respect and caution. I just wanted to let you know that I am alright, but we must all understand that this thing is not over—but how do we fix it—if helping the people that are hurting is hurting us more, what do we do? What do I do? I can go home and forget about it or I can earn respect from the people I work with and hope and pray that they are not blowing up my convoys at night. What a fucked-up world.”

The day I wrote that letter remains vivid in my mind because I was scared, I was angry, and I was hurt, and I could only share a portion of what happened that day. I hit “send” and it went to every person in my mailing list. And as each email response came back, it was like a hundred tiny hugs virtually embracing me as I sobbed through my coded messaging.  

Shortly after that email I decided that I was going to continue to give an honest assessment of my experiences, but I also needed to be completely honest about who I was. For years I had struggled with my sexual identity, and in the midst of all the challenging experiences of war, I met my first girlfriend and confirmed what I had wrestled with my whole life, that I was a lesbian. 

Yvette Pino poses in a sandstorm. She described the moment like "skiing the Swedish Alps," in a letter home. Photo courtesy of Yvette Pino

Yvette Pino poses in a sandstorm. She described the moment like “skiing the Swedish Alps,” in a letter home. Photo courtesy of Yvette Pino

As my new relationship formed, my internal conflicts also grew around whether or not I could maintain the secrecy of my actions. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” still existed, and I was determined to be discreet. The increasing danger of war and my ongoing charade unnerved me, and I yearned to speak to the one person who could offer me advice, my mother. 

Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox

  • Email address
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

I made a rare call home and during our brief conversation she could sense that I was not OK, but I could not bring myself to divulge anything other than my need to hear her voice. I hung up and reminded myself that my mother could always catch me in a lie. I not only needed her to hear the truth, but I also wanted to talk to her about all of the confusing emotions I was dealing with. So, I sat down and wrote a confessional. Make no mistake, this was a confessional—I needed to expose the truth to my family and to myself. I sought no forgiveness; I simply wanted the truth spoken. I mailed the letter home, waiting nervously for a response. Mail was usually a 30- to 60-day turnaround, so I patiently accepted the fact that I would not hear back right away. 

After two months went by, I started getting anxious that I had crossed the line and would be without a lifeline back home. After three months, dread set in and I called home. When I spoke to my mother, she didn’t mention the letter. I wasn’t sure if she had not received it or if it was not to be discussed. Then, I received an email from my sister that she had read the letter. She reassured me that the family loved me, but that I would have to wait a little longer for a response. 

Yvette Pino by flowers around the palace in Mosul, Iraq, in 2003. She would describe the colorful blooms to her mother in letters. Photo courtesy of Yvette Pino

Yvette Pino by flowers around the palace in Mosul, Iraq, in 2003. She would describe the colorful blooms to her mother in letters. Photo courtesy of Yvette Pino

I was extremely confused, but I had overlooked one crucial detail when I decided to send that letter home. Someone would have to read it out loud to my mother, since she was paralyzed. I had not considered the position that I was putting my sister in, expecting her to essentially confess for me and, in that act, she would also have to console my mother and respond to questions that she could not possibly have answered. 

In the last weeks of December, I was allowed to go home to Albuquerque on mid-tour leave. When I arrived, my sister confided in me that she had not shared the letter with our mother and that she felt it was my responsibility to tell my own truth. I was angry. At that time, I could not separate my desperation to let the truth be revealed from the reality of the fact that I had placed my sister in an objectionable position. That week, I sat down next to my mother’s bed, and I read the letter to her. After a short silence, she asked me the oddest question, which confused me more than shocked me. I have tried to remember what it was and each time I think about it my memory instantly fails me. In my mind I can watch the entire moment unfold but it is a silent film and I cannot read her lips. This self-censored memory is one of the reasons I have been searching through all of my letters and pictures, trying to find a clue to remind me of what she said. I gave her time to process it all, and I expected us to revisit the topic in greater detail later down the road. 

I returned to Iraq and finished my tour in February. My mother died in March. We never discussed the letter again. Unfortunately, it would take years for me to realize the weight of burden that the letter had.    

Our Journalism Depends on Your Support

  • Hidden

Looking back, many years later, my mother gone, and knowing that we are still committed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is sometimes difficult to get through my letters and not feel a sense of deep despair. The hope for change I wanted had not come to fruition on so many levels. 

I actually feel a greater sense of guilt for coming out the way I did and for being so fixated on my identity when there are people in Iraq still suffering and soldiers still unable to serve openly without fear or risk of discharge, particularly in the case of the trans community. I struggle with the fact that, even when you are serving openly, and legally, every change of command, every added soldier or change in personnel means having to come out all over again.

Because I have not found my own sense of peace, I look through my letters in search of something. Closure, hope, acceptance, forgiveness: I’m not sure. 

Tags: , , , ,

Yvette Pino

Yvette Pino served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2003 year to 2004. She now lives in Wisconsin and works as an art curator.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Do you value compassionate, compelling stories like this? Donate $15 so we can continue to dig in on stories that matter, and let us keep our reporting and writing seminars free for everyone.