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Play shows soldiers' memories to the letter

NORFOLK, Va. — "Mom, I know this will be very late, but I hope late is better than never. I send my heartfelt love from across the ocean. I think of mother's day from years past -- all those wonderful memories of you, the family home, come rushing to my head, fill me with emotion. So many wonderful experiences. So many things to be thankful for. These thoughts and images sustain me from day to day, week to week. The happy idea of home and family keep us all going."

— 2nd Lt. Leonard Cowherd

The Mother's Day card from Leonard arrived a week after his funeral.

He was 22, a young Army officer who led a platoon of men in Iraq and was shot by a sniper in the city of Karbala on May 16, 2004. He had a new wife, a twin brother, two other siblings. He wrote home prolifically.

Like so many letters home from war, Leonard's are filled with love and yearning. His words offer a glimpse into the world of soldiers on the front lines, the bonds they share and the hardships they confront. His story is part of "Letters Home," a play that comes to the stage in Norfolk on Sunday.

In readings of actual letters from nearly two dozen servicemen and women — poignant, sometimes wistful, other times humorous or tragic — the show brings their war home in their own words. One by one, actors in Army uniforms stand under a spotlight and recite a letter. The spotlight fades, and a new soldier steps up. Slowly, their stories come to life.

For some, these notes from war were their last messages. Leonard's now seems almost prophetic, citing the Bible and sounding so much like goodbye:

"I've fought the good fight; I've stayed the course; I have kept the faith. Love, Leonard."

His mother saw it as a sign. It contained beloved childhood memories — the name of a Chinese restaurant they ate at and the church they attended. It made them laugh.

"I knew it was special," Mary Ann Cowherd told an audience following a performance last year. "And I knew it needed to be shared."

The play was inspired by a New York Times op-ed piece and an HBO documentary and accompanying book, "Last Letters Home," that included Leonard's letters. In 2007, William Massolia, the artistic director at the Griffin Theater in Chicago, adapted the theme for the stage, incorporating letters from soldiers who survived and a few from family back home. He wanted to remind Americans that a small percentage were putting their lives on the line, Massolia said.

Paul Lasakow, executive director of the Roper, said he was taken by the range of emotions the play captures.

"It shows how these incredible people in the most unforgiving environment I can think of kept their humanity, their humor, kept their love and compassion," he said. "For somebody like me, who never served, I think it's a way to, in some very small way, see in inside these soldiers. And although I know I can never understand what they went through, I can honor their stories by making sure they are heard on stage."

Sharing Leonard's letters was a way for the Cowherds to fill the empty space he left behind. Several commemorative plaques bear his name — at his old school, in his hometown of Culpeper, Va., on a park bench at Knollwood Beach in Old Saybrook, Conn., where the family spent their summers.

Those rich memories and the reminder of grief came rushing back recently when Mary Ann's sister, Elizabeth Allen, who lives in Norfolk, found out the show was coming here. She started poring through the book, reading Leonard's letters.

In one to his twin brother, Charles, Leonard described Sunday Mass on the base.

"It's such a powerful experience ... a small number of people from all over the world who don't know one another, dirty, tired, armed to the teeth, shuffle into a small tent with cement floors and poor lighting, worshipping with old beat-up bibles and a sheet of printed-out prayers. A small, 20 ft. by 20 ft. square of the Body of Christ amidst a Muslim nation."

Leonard graduated West Point in June 2003, became a platoon leader and married his love, Sarah, a Norfolk native. He deployed in January. Less than 5 months later, he was dead.

"It is difficult to come to terms with the death of any young person, particularly someone like Leonard who was truly one of the best and the brightest," his aunt said. "The loss of Leonard has changed all of us."

Leonard's parents have seen the performance four times and have developed a relationship with the cast, who, in 2009, while in Connecticut, paid a visit to the bench in his memory. They recorded a wordless video as they stood reflecting in front of the lapping waters of the Long Island Sound.

But until this year, Charles declined to see the show.

"Why would I want to relive the most painful moments of my life?" he said in an interview.

But then he got engaged and needed to find a venue to "share this pain."

After the performance, Charles wrote Massolia an email. He recalled a commentary by Thomas Friedman in 2004 stating that Americans do not deserve their military who are "so much better than the country they are fighting for."

"The show," Charles wrote, "operates in a cynical age, in the shadow of a cynical war and attempts only to do what everyone who is not in the military must try to do: make this a country worth fighting for."

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