It has been 27 years since the end of the Vietnam War, yet emotional ties to the country and the conflict are still strong for many Americans. In recent years, some Americans visiting Vietnam have returned with "dog tags", metal identification tags worn by U.S. soldiers. They are hoping to give these tags to the families of the servicemen and women who wore them in combat.
Last year, Martha Roskam of suburban Chicago was browsing the wares of street vendors in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam when something caught her eye. "They were on top of a wicker basket with old coins in it. On top were these dog tags," she says.
Back at the hotel that night she told her husband she had seen American military dog tags being sold along with other trinkets. "I had a profound sense of sadness when I saw them," she says. My husband is the one who said, 'Go get them. They should not be sold as souvenirs.'"
Nine years ago, New Jersey newspaper reporter Jim Six had the same feeling of sadness when a local police chief on his way to Vietnam told him dog tags could be bought on the street, sometimes for pennies. "For some reason it just ticked me off that these guys were selling old dog tags," he says. "So, I gave him $100 and said buy as many as you can and bring them home."
Martha Roskam came home from Vietnam with 36 dog tags. Jim Six's friend returned with about 450 tags. He hoped to find the owners' names listed on the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. "When I got them I thought maybe I could just match them up with the list of names on the wall (Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington) and see if they belong to anyone who died or survived," he says. "But when I looked at this pile of almost 500 dog tags, I was just totally overwhelmed."
What both Jim and Martha want to do is return them to the families of dead servicemen and women who wore the tags in Vietnam. In some cases, a tag owner might still be alive. "We did find out from a young man who served there. He said 'A lot of us did not wear them because they would make noise when we went on patrol at night.' Or they would put them in their shoes, so they would get lost."
Martha's son, Peter Roskam is a state senator in Illinois. She has turned the tags over to him in hopes that he knows someone who can help find the owners. Peter says a private investigator has been checking the information on the tags and is hopeful of finding the families of at least a few tag owners.
State and federal government officials led Jim Six to the sister of a Marine corporal whose name was on one of his tags. Last year he flew to Texas to meet the woman and present her brother's dog tag. "I had gone to a jewelry store and gotten a jewelry box and I put this dirty old dog tag in it, and I said 'It gives me great pleasure to give this to you.' And, she just cried. She would not let go of it. Her son and his family, when they wanted to look at it, she kept her eyes on it the whole time. She would not let it out of her sight," he says.
Mr. Six is hoping to set up an Internet Web site where he can list the names and military service branches of the tags he has, in hopes that someone will recognize a name and contact him. Two men in Florida have collected a few hundred dog tags in Vietnam and have the names listed on a Web site.
Both Jim and Martha have been told some vendors in Vietnam sell counterfeit American dog tags, but both believe theirs are real. "If they were fake, why don't I have 500 dog tags with lots of copies and duplicates? I don't. I don't have any duplicates at all," he says.
Martha's son Peter Roskam knows finding the dog tag owners or their families is not an easy thing to do, but he says it is the right thing to do. "When you hold these dog tags in your hand, I know it sounds like an overstatement, but when you hold these dog tags in your hand, you feel the weight of history," he says. "You look at them and think each individual story that goes with these tags is overwhelming."
Mr. Roskam says the U.S. war against terrorism following last September's attacks has made it all the more important to honor the men and women who serve America in the military.