Romance Fiction posted June 7, 2020

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Stephen and Hoa

Letters From Heaven's Gateway 7

by Sally Law

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.


"Love is the master key that opens the gates of happiness." Oliver Wendell Holmes


"Let the children born of hero heart be the champions of the weary, let them take their strength and lift up the broken, for they are the ones who would lay down life and limb to do what is right. So take your army and give them the right to use the arms God gave them for what they are for, for love, for helping, for kindness and peace. For God loves the brave soul, the noble spirit and the one who protects." Angela Abraham

Unlike the others in this short story series, Letters From Heaven's Gateway #7 is based on a true story. Set in Vietnam, the love story of Stephen and Hoa.


Green Beret Headquarters, Nha Trang, South Vietnam, south of the Demilitarized Zone. April 24, 1972.

Some had said the Vietnam War was senseless and not ours to fight. Possibly this was a politician, sitting in an air-conditioned office somewhere, thought U.S. Special Forces, Sergeant Stephen Pembrook.

He had known the truth, personally saving so many men, women, and children. His loved ones back home became the faces of the South Vietnamese, ravaged by this cruel war. China had embraced communism in 1949 along with its southern neighbor, North Vietnam. As suspected, the domino effect had come into play.

In their spread of communism, the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) were putting to death their own people at great expense, and were a brutal, relentless foe. Added to the daily stresses, the United States government thought it was necessary to remove the jungle over-growth by dropping planeloads of the toxic herbicide, Agent Orange.

On his third tour, the weapons sergeant trained others for war in the densely overgrown areas, along with the south Vietnamese ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). A brave man, facing the spectre of death in the company of so many like himself. Pleasures were few; but compared to the local peasants, he had little complaint.

Usually, the air was thick and humid like his native Florida; and he adjusted to the climate better than most. The sky would change from the color of blue forget-me-nots to ghost grey in a matter of seconds, producing a cheerless downpour.

Steve had one job now: soldiering. Everything else had been given up for this. Selflessness was the Green Beret's way.

Like a mother of a newborn, he slept with one foot out of bed. Typically, he awoke somewhere between three and four o'clock, which was the norm. When stateside, he couldn't seem to turn that part of himself off, although he'd tried. It was ingrained and aggravating to both his ex-wives. Twenty-three, and the recipient of two Dear John letters, he was beginning to believe a lie. This is all that will ever exist for me. An unloved soldier, forevermore, he said in protest.

This week, his infantry detachment was assigned to train a group of ARVN in hand-to-hand combat, as guerrilla warfare was Steve's speciality. His accreditations and honors preceded him: numerous awards and decorations, black belts in judo, karate, and aikido. He was easy to spot as the soldier who carried a walking stick, just in case his weapon malfunctioned. With his aikido, Steve was said to be more lethal with a stick than anything.

On this memorable day, a new enemy would enter in, radically redirecting the young sergeant's future.

At first light, Steve and his squad set out to a south Vietnamese military encampment for days of intense training. He didn't mention it to his men at the time, but he felt off physically. The medic had given him a shot of penicillin, along with some horehound drops for his sore throat. Still, a burning throat plagued him.

The fifteen-mile hike was slow and careful... arriving before the midday meal. The ARVN training leader, Colonel Li, was not yet nineteen-years-old. This war had robbed the cradle of many nations, Steve thought.

The advantage of weight and size had to be tailored down for the small-framed group of soldiers eager to learn. Steve, along with Lieutenant John Rayford, led the group in hand-to-hand combat the first day.

Noticing the sergeant was visibly weakened by the afternoon's activity, Colonel Li recommended he visit the nurse, his sister, Hoa. Steve politely declined, and soldiered on.

"All I need is a hot drink and some rest."

A herb infused tea appeared in a fine, porcelain cup, brought by a little boy with a big smile. The hand-painted cup seemed so out of place and unseemly for hands of war. "Nurse say give you," said the boy in broken English.

After night watches, the career soldier drifted off into a fitful sleep as his body gave way to a febrile seizure.

For most people, this would be viewed as the end. But, for the recently divorced father of two sons, he would find a love so precious, it would renew his faith in love and God.

At first he swore the young woman was unearthly, an angel of some sort. His eyes couldn't see her through the fevered haze, but he felt her gentle touch and soothing voice. She attended him day and night, nursing him back to partial health. However, the sore throats continued to grow worse; and it became increasingly difficult for him to speak.

After a few days, Steve was able to sit up and eat. Herbs were mixed with teas, and given to him during the day to restore his strength.These strange concoctions seem to work rather well, he thought.

While inside the modest dwelling, he recognized the boy who had brought him the cup of tea. Like stair steps, two more stood beside their brother.

The angel-in-arms clapped her hands and chased the boys from the room with commands in French for each one. They obeyed her without a word.

How could she be a widow, and mother to so many children? She looks no more than sixteen. I wish I'd paid better attention in French class!

He admired her with sideways glances when she wasn't looking, and thought her extraordinary. He studied her Asian features that had been mingled with her French ancestry: her brunette hair, ivory skin tone, rich brown eyes, and a small dimple on her left cheek. When cross, her eyebrows knit together in a long line-- her every expression so sweet to him.

The evenings were lively with chatter the minute the boys entered the small dwelling, going back and forth between Vietnamese and French. At the end of the day, the older boy brought his day's earnings and laid it on the cutting board, which also served as the dinner table. The sergeant was only a patient inside the makeshift clinic, and he found himself falling in love with her.

Steve realized her sons were actually her younger brothers, once she told him of her parents' death at the hand of the Viet Cong. She was an orphan who'd become the sole parent to her siblings. Relief washed over him when he learned she was much older than he had suspected.

Speaking with her mostly with animated hand gestures, he began to draw pictures to express his feelings. His florals always coaxed a smile. Her name, Hoa, meant flower.

As soon as Steve could walk around, he was determined to get back to headquarters. Five days had passed, but he felt it had been just a moment. A deep ache inside his heart, made it nearly impossible to leave as he paused at the door.

"I will return soon, Hoa. I must finish what I was assigned to do." Hoa buried her head in her hands and sobbed. "You no leave," is all she said over and over. Walking back once more, he embraced her. "I promise, I will see you again. You have my word."

Steve left, but with a heavy heart and limbs. He made it back to the chopper pickup point along with Lieutenant Rayford and his remaining squad. Upon arrival at Nha Trang headquarters, he immediately reported to his commander.

His last check-in point was the infirmary, where the staff physician wasn't at all pleased.

Steve was transferred to the closest military hospital and subjected to a barrage of tests, where advanced cancer of the larynx was confirmed. He heard the news that he would be honorably discharged from the Army and have his larynx removed. The catch was that he had to return to the United States immediately.

He decided to wait, speaking directly to both his case manager and CO, claiming special circumstances. Words he hoped to hear came from the commander's lips. "All I need is a certificate of marriage. I will have you and your new family on the next flight out of here, Sergeant."

Without hesitation, he penned a letter to Hoa.

Dear Hoa,

First, I want to say that I've never had such a wonderful friend as you. You took care of me so unswervingly. I don't know how you did it. No matter what time it was, you were up and about. It didn't occur to me at the time, but you had given me your own bed.

I've been married twice, and neither of them had ever shown such love and devotion. I must tell you... I love you, my flower. You are so beautiful to me.

Bad news has reached me, and I'm not sure what to make of it all. The doctor says it's cancer of the throat, most likely caused by Agent Orange exposure. My only hope is to have surgery and radiation treatments. The doctor's tone was very matter-of-fact as he encouraged me to leave Vietnam immediately.

Which brings me to you. I only know I want you near me, like--married to me. I'm sorry... this is not very poetic. If there were a piano nearby, I'd play for you. I dearly wish I had the voice to sing again. But my heart is singing. Can you hear it?

Marry me? If I have you and your brothers, I will make it. There is nothing more I can offer the army. I will take you all to the United States. Washington state has an excellent veteran's hospital and safety.

I found a white Bible tucked inside your feather bed, and see we already share the same faith. Part of your French ancestry, I suppose. I'm a Methodist... I hope that's okay. Most of all, I love you, Hoa.

Let me know as soon as you can, as time is nearing for my imminent departure.

Return a message to me by way of military courier today. Unlike me, his French is impeccable. He has been instructed to wait for your reply. If yes is your answer, I will send a transport for you and we'll marry here. It's not snazzy, but there's a small garden just outside my window. Please accept my cross as a gift. I've worn it throughout the war.

I'm hoping and waiting, my love,


The letter and silver necklace was delivered that afternoon by military courier, with an immediate reply.


Dear Steve,

I will be ready by tomorrow. Please send for me. I love you, too. I will bring flowers, my Elvis Presley record, and the boys.

Your bride,


Steve and Hoa married in the garden--she looking more beautiful than he had remembered. Hoa said it was because she had regained her bed and a good night's sleep.

The clan of brothers were so happy for their sister, they escorted her to Steve and gave their blessing. Jade wedding bands were exchanged with long kisses between the bride and groom. Elvis was there--sort of--as his album played softly in the background.

Their hands never parted during the brief ceremony, glad to be together as one. It was as if they knew they had no time to waste.


The last time I saw my stepbrother, Steve, was in 1974. Although much altered physically, his spirit seemed to be as strong as ever. He gave credit to Hoa for saving his life; and I could see the tender love in his eyes as he showed me her photograph. We talked for a long time with the aid of a mechanical device he held to his throat. He said he was looking forward to his upcoming "Diaper Detail."

I thought, still a soldier, and always a soldier....

Story of the Month contest entry



Names, dates, and ranks were changed for my family's privacy. Steve is buried in Washington State. His grave site was honored by actor, Chuck Norris. It reads, "The Best Ever." Thank you, Mr. Norris. You are a true patriot.

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