Dear John… (or Matt, Sean, Bill, etc),
“I really admire that you wanted to better yourself by joining the military and I’m proud of you, but I just don’t think I can wait for you to get back. I’m only 20 years old and I want to hang out and party with my friends. I didn’t want to tell you this by letter, but it’s the only way I could contact you. Maybe we can hang out one day when you get home.”
While not a verbatim letter that I ever received, I’ve read the above words in a number of variations through many of my friends. The Dear John letter is a very real thing for those who are serving or have served in the military.
Let me say first that the main thing I’ll be discussing in this article is my experience and that of the guys with whom I served in the Marine Corps. I’m sure a similar thing happens with female military personnel, but all of my anecdotes come straight from the male side of the house. I’d love to hear from anyone who has experience from the female perspective in the comments below!
The History of the Dear John Letter
If you search for “Dear John Letter” online one of the surprising results is “how-to-write a Dear John letter.” Apparently, the Dear John letter is gaining some serious momentum in pop culture.
The phrase “Dear John” has an unknown origin, but is believed to have become much more well-known during World War II. Because some servicemen were stationed overseas for years, many of their women at home simply decided they were going to move forward with a new man and start a new family. There are reports dating at least back to August 1945 when a writer for the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, NY wrote about one such letter he’d seen. It started like this:
“Dear John. I have found someone else whom I think the world of. I think the only way out is for us to get a divorce.”
And while that certainly wasn’t the first letter of its kind, it heralded an ominous pattern for servicemembers.
The term gained even more notoriety in the 1950s when country-western singers Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard made the song A Dear John Letter a hit. The first verse of that literary masterpiece goes like that:
“Dear John, Oh, how I hate to write
Dear John, I must let you know tonight
That my love for you has died away like grass upon the lawn
And tonight I wed another, Dear John.”
Those of you who have served, understand how important mail call is. As a line from Dear John Letter says “The postman came to me and he handed me a letter, I was happy as I could be.” The song gets that just right. For those who haven’t served, here is a quick insight into military mail-time in boot camp (at least in the Marine Corps):
“Ok you turds, gather round so I can hand you out all the letters from your girlfriends telling you that they found someone else and are pregnant with his kid. Most of you probably didn’t even get a letter from anyone because you SUCK. Tell your family not to bother sending you a letter next week because you probably won’t make it here that long.”
So, as you can tell, military mail-time is awesome!
Mail time honestly was something that we all looked forward to each week. For most, it was the highlight of the day. Once the letters were handed out, though, excitement turned to a number of emotions in no time flat… anger, happiness, sadness, bitterness, depression, etc. based on the content of the letter that you received. A situation equally depressing to finding out your girlfriend is cheating on you with your “best” friend is being one of the poor souls who receive no letter at all from home. I really think it is better to find out your girl is cheating on you than to not get a letter at all for a week, but that’s just me. Your mileage on that may vary.
I’ve seen guys get Dear John letters from girlfriends and wives stating they just couldn’t wait for them to return. And I’ve seen confessional letters from Marines’ former friends admitting what they’d done with your girl. (I guess in hopes that if you return a savage headhunter that theirs won’t be the first you take).
Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues
Bootcamp is already an emotional roller coaster. I left home at 18 and just a day later I was standing at Marine Depot San Diego getting screamed at by drill instructors. Before I left, I’d watched Full Metal Jacket no less than 20 times to get myself prepared for what the DI’s would be sending my way. I could never have found a more accurate pre-boot camp workup movie to prepare with.
I was happy as could be when they screamed at me. I felt like I’d finally “arrived.” What I wasn’t loving was that my girlfriend of three years was back at home doing God knows what with God knows whom… and I had a pretty good girl. I can only imagine the feeling the guys whose girlfriends were a little more “flirty” than mine had when they left.
When I left, my girlfriend’s plan was to wait for me to graduate boot camp, and then we’d get married and do military life together. Man, looking back on it I’m glad that plan fell through.
One particular letter I got during mail time one day was from one of my friends. This was a friend whom I could actually trust to give me good info about my girlfriend because they’re first cousins (and we didn’t live in West Virginia… kidding… mostly). He told me that she’d been hanging out with another guy (also named Matt) more since I’d left for boot camp. He said it was nothing inappropriate but that they’d been hanging out a lot.
It’s hard to say the feeling that conjures up in your belly when you hear that information and there is literally NOT ONE THING you can do about it for another two months. It is difficult. Compile the typical feeling one would have with the fact that I hated this other Matt more than anyone I knew at that young age. I think my girlfriend could have cheated on me with my own dad and I’d have been less angry than I was at the thought that she was just hanging out with this Matt character.
Of course, once you hear the news, you have to carefully consider your response. You don’t want to make threats like if he hangs out with you “I’ll kill him,” because then you are committing a crime. You don’t want to be too controlling and tell her she’s “not allowed” to hang out with him because she may realize that there is nothing you can do about it and call your bluff. You don’t want to pretend you don’t know or care, because then the “hanging out” may turn into more. Lastly, you don’t want to be just outright mean because that’s all the communication she’ll get from you for the next one to two weeks and all you’ll do is push her closer to the other “Matt.” It’s a tough predicament.
The Overseas Deployment Multiplier
And this is just boot camp. I never deployed overseas during my time in the Marine Corps, but some of the guys I served with and/or have worked with since tell me it is just magnified when you are overseas. When you go to boot camp at 18, you have nothing really to your name, as far as bills or other responsibilities, and you (hopefully) don’t have any kids or a spouse yet. In contrast, when a military member deploys overseas at 31 years of age, they likely have a spouse, kids, car, and house payments. Life at home continues without them and we’ve all met or we have that one friend whom we know would slide into your wife’s DMs at the first opening. You know, the guy who if your wife said to him, “I’ve just been kind of lonely lately with Matt” he’d be shooting his shot from that point until you returned… and then he’d show up at your troop return pretending he was thrilled you’re back!
All the while, you’re in a war zone trying to focus on performing at your peak and not letting your guys down. Some of the Tier One guys I’ve spoken to say that it was actually somewhat relaxing for them to go on long missions because nothing else at that time mattered outside of the mission. The fact that your house payment just bounced was irrelevant. The fact that you had a big argument with your spouse was now back-burner material. And the info you just received that one of your kids got suspended from school for a week just disappeared into oblivion.
Another friend I spoke to who served in the Navy said that he’d see fellow sailors getting the “Dear John Letter” just mere weeks before they would return to port after being at sea for three-four months. He said those letters were a major reason that guys would jump overboard during his time in the Navy. It’s sad.
I actually did get something of a Dear John letter, in the form of a text message, in 2001 (this may be the new phraseology with all the techy-types now). My boot camp girlfriend and I were no longer together and I decided to briefly date a girl in the Army as my “rebound.” One day, I was at my base and she was at hers (I think) and she sent me a text that said simply, “You’re too good for me and I think we should break up.” Now, before anyone gets any ideas, I’ll let you all know that I’m literally “too good” for absolutely no one. I think that was her way of letting me down gently, but either way, it’s a phrase I’ve never forgotten or understood. But, that’s how my Dear John relationship ended.
Dear John Letter Countermeasures
I wish I had some great ideas on how to help solve this decades-old problem of servicemembers receiving the infamous Dear John letter, but I don’t. We’re all humans, and no matter how advanced we get as warfighters, the one emotion none of us can control is love, or the lack thereof.
My friend in the Navy had his own “Dear John” countermeasures though. He would break up with anyone he was seeing before he put out to sea, saying he’d look them up when he got back. He said he never returned to find them unattached to someone else and waiting faithfully for him to return, not once.
All I can say is that if you have read this far and your significant other is deployed overseas or is off at boot camp, at least give them the courtesy to wait until they return home. At that point, if you need to break off the relationship then go for it, but don’t mentally ruin them when they need to be the sharpest they can both for their own and their teammates’ sake.
And, if you get the chance, check out the A Dear John Letter song. It’s a legit old country song that ties this whole piece up with a nice bow. As always, if you all have any personal experiences you’d like to share on this topic please tell me about it in the comment section below!
This article was originally published in June 2021.