On my most recent visit to Chicago my dad opened an old shoebox and removed a letter from his cousin Jeffery Gurvitz, who died fighting in Vietnam at the age of 24.

My dad and Jeff grew up together on the south side of Chicago (both were grandsons of Hyman Victor), and later spent a year as roommates down at the University of Illinois. When they graduated, my dad maintained his 2S student deferment. Jeff served in the army.

A few years later, just three months into Jeff’s deployment, soldiers visited his parents to report that Jeff was missing in action. They returned the next day to say that he was dead.

Vietnam War Death Notice Chicago Sun Times 1968

This all happened before I was born. But my dad mentioned Jeff on occasion, and I grew up knowing I had a cousin who died fighting in Vietnam.

When I was older, my parents and I attended the Chicago premiere of Regret to Inform, an Academy Award-nominated documentary by Jeff’s widow Barbara Sonneborn. The story of Jeff’s death features prominently in the film, and it includes excerpts from an audio diary he recorded in the field:

Pretty soon I’ll be going out into the field. To be perfectly honest with you. I’m going to a unit that is doing a fair amount of fighting, as you’ll read in the newspapers. But I don’t think you should worry about it, because I think I’ll get through it just fine.

Just today there were 4 men walking through a rice field. We had a team out on a hill spotting for artillery, and they saw them. One of them was holding what could have been a weapon, or it could have been a hoe or a rake or something else. From the distance you’re at it’s hard to tell. And I know for myself I can’t see killing a man for holding a hoe or a rake. And if it was a weapon, why, I wanna be damn sure before I kill him. Damn sure.

Just two weeks before his death, Jeff wrote my dad this letter:

Handwritten Letter from Soldier in Vietnam

Life here is dreary. The war – thank God – is remote. I have yet to fire my weapon in anger. When contact comes it is quick and violent. But you can understand that the pressure is not as bad as I had envisioned.

Leonard Malkin pointing to Jeff Gurvitz at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in 1990.

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