By John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington
Len and Mary Ann Cowherd noticed a big white pickup truck pulling into the driveway of their Culpeper, Va., home about 8:30 in the evening of May 16, 2004.
"When a couple of guys in Army uniforms got out, we pretty much knew what had happened," Len said recently. "They came in, and we talked to them, and we tried to help them out because it's a pretty rough business for them, too."
The soldiers were there to inform the Cowherds that their son, Army 2nd Lt. Leonard Cowherd III, 22, West Point class of '03, had been killed earlier that day by sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades in Karbala, Iraq.
"When it first happens, you're in shock, and that helps lessen some of the pain," Len said. "Then after awhile you have this empty space, and that empty space is what you have for the rest of your life."
Len and Mary Ann tried to fill that empty space by talking constantly about their son and by sharing his letters home with others.
"The most intense letter was the one to my wife, her Mother's Day card, which arrived a week after he died," Len said. "It was an extremely powerful one."
Lt. Cowherd had dated the Mother's Day card May 8, 2004, eight days before his death.
"I send my heartfelt love to you from across the ocean," he wrote. "I think of Mother's Days from years past - going to St. Stephen's, going with the family to China Jade, where they hand out roses to the mothers - all these wonderful memories of you, the family, home, come rushing into my head and fill me with emotion. So many wonderful experiences, so many things to be thankful for."
The Mother's Day card and other letters from Lt. Cowherd eventually found their way onto the op-ed page of the New York Times and into an HBO documentary and several books of letters home from soldiers.
"It keeps his memory alive," Len said.
"There's nothing, nothing, nothing that can ever bring him back, but it is a little bit of solace," Mary Ann said. "It's a little connection to him."
Len and Mary Ann are driving up to New York this weekend to hear their son's letters quoted once again, this time in Griffin Theatre Company's production of "Letters Home," featuring actors giving dramatic presentations of letters home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Some of these guys out here Sarah - they are just kids," Lt. Cowherd wrote in a letter to his wife that is part of the production. "I'm not an old codger myself - but I couldn't imagine going through the experiences that these guys are going through at age of 18, 19, 20.
"If you saw them walking down the street you would think that they belong in the arcade or at a movie theater hanging out with their friends, getting in trouble, doing stuff kids do - not putting their lives on the line every second of every day."
Artistic director Bill Massolia said his intent in creating "Letters Home" was to show the human face of war.
"All the greatest ideals of this country in terms of patriotism, brotherhood, sense of community, bravery, faith and compassion for fellow human beings are reflected in the letters," he said.
Len said "Letters Home" also helps remind America that it's still at war.
"Here in Culpeper, or wherever, there's very few people that are directly affected by these wars," he said. "The general public in Culpeper is to a great degree clueless. People need to know."
"Letters Home" is on a 12-city tour that concludes May 21, 2009, in Concord, N.H. For more information on "Letters Home," go to www.GriffinTheatre.com.
Photos: Army 2nd Lt. Leonard Cowherd III (AP Photo) and "Letters Home" (courtesy of Griffin Theatre Company).
1. Army Spc. Adam Wenger, 27, of Mount Pleasant, S.C.
2. Army Pfc. Theron Hobbs, 22, of Albany, Ga.
3. Army Staff Sgt. Timothy Walker, 38, of Franklin, Tenn.