COPPEROPOLIS - In April, Charity L. Maness received a battered shoebox of 44-year-old love letters that changed the direction of her writing career.
Maness, who lives in Copperopolis, until then had specialized in romance novels such as "Prince Charming," published in 2010, and humor such as "From Positive Test to Empty Nest," published in 2009.
The letters in the shoebox had no happy ending.
James D. Piper wrote them to his wife, Michelle, during the final months of his life as he went through basic training and then served in the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. He wrote the last letter on April 9, 1967.
Piper was killed during combat two days later. He was 19.
Michelle, now Micki Phillips, asked Maness to write a book based on the letters.
That plunged Maness into research on the Vietnam War. She was starting from scratch.
Maness said she'd never read works such as Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" or Michael Herr's "Dispatches," popular non-fiction works on the experience of U.S. soldiers in southeast Asia.
"Before starting writing this book, I knew nothing other than that I was a veterans' advocate," Maness said.
She had assisted the recent successful effort to form a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Copperopolis. Her son, Marine Corps Sgt. Chris Maness, had served overseas in Cuba, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Maness spent months transcribing Piper's letters and producing a book in which the letters alternate with accounts of the war gleaned from government records and media accounts. The result is "It's Lonely Here in Hell," Love Letters from Nam.
The book reproduces the letters in their entirety. Maness said the only thing she edited out were two appearances of the F-word, replaced with an F and dashed lines. She did that, she said, in the hope that eliminating it would mean adults would be more likely to encourage high school students to explore the book.
The book is painful to read. The letters make it clear that James D. Piper, a young man from San Lorenzo, was very much in love with Michelle, whom he married shortly before he got his draft notice.
Maness said she believes Piper did what he could to shield his wife from the horrors of what he was experiencing. Still, before the end, Piper does tell her of killing Vietnamese adversaries, and he uses a racist slur to refer to them.
One of the most heartbreaking incidents comes as Piper is ordered by an officer to beat an elderly woman during an interrogation.
"I had to slap an old woman across the face to make her talk yesterday," he wrote in a letter dated April 6, 1967. "I felt bad, just as if I had slapped Grandma Pacheco."
Between the letters, Maness provides context on the magnitude of military operations. More important, she shows the conflict between official pronouncements that the U.S. was winning and the secret reports that showed otherwise.
Piper, the 19-year-old foot soldier, apparently saw it too. Although he wanted to serve his country, he also noted several times that military operations were almost never as brief and easy as commanders predicted.
Once, he describes counting bodies of slain enemy soldiers, but can't understand why he "considered them as dead animals."
"It's hard to explain, but then again it's a hard war to explain," Piper wrote.
Reading his letters, and government records, was a journey for Maness as well.
"The research, it leads to more questions and more questions," Maness said. "It leads down this path to ... I can't believe my government was thinking this."
Maness said neither she nor her children had been taught about the contradictions between what the government said about the war in Vietnam and the reality portrayed in secret reports.
"I really feel if we had been taught about it, we might have made different decisions now," she said, referring to more recent engagements in the Middle East. "History is bound to repeat itself if you don't learn from it."
So far, about 500 people have purchased "It's Lonely Here in Hell."
To her surprise, some of those who liked her previous writing have shied away from the book of letters.
"The reporter wouldn't return my calls. The library wouldn't return my calls," she said of places in Kentucky that previously welcomed her when she came through for book signings.
Finally, a librarian told her why: "Because it had 'Hell' in the title."
The word came from a line in one of Piper's letters.
New audiences have found Maness, however. She said a number of Vietnam veterans have approached her at book signings and told her their stories.
Now, she's working with a number of those soldiers as well as a psychologist who specializes in post traumatic stress disorder to write a new volume with their accounts of war.
"I really feel these soldiers, these veterans' stories, need to be told."
Contact reporter Dana M. Nichols at (209) 607-1361 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/calaverasblog.
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