V.R. Roskam didn’t know anything about the men whose names were stamped on the small, thin pieces of metal. He didn’t know one belonged to a young Marine killed by a land mine. Or that one flew off a teenage soldier’s neck when he jumped from a helicopter into a firefight.
But Roskam fought in Korea, and the way he saw it, 37 dog tags didn’t belong in a wicker basket in some Ho Chi Minh City souvenir stand — they belonged in the hands of men who lost them fighting the Vietnam War.
“It’s a matter of honor,” said Roskam, 75. “They fell into our hands and they need to be returned to the right people.”
Roskam and his wife, Martha, came across the military identification tags on a trip to Vietnam three years ago. Nine tags have been returned to soldiers or their families, and the Roskams are preparing to fly to Alabama to deliver another.
Badge hunters try to 'make something right'
The Illinois couple is among a handful of Americans who have bought thousands of dog tags in Vietnam, not as souvenirs, but to return them to the U.S. troops who fought there in the 1960s and early 70s. They want to honor the soldiers whose service was treated with indifference and even open disdain.
“These are grown, hardened men in their 50s and 60s, and they’re kind of in tears telling you about being spit on and told they were baby killers and basically ashamed of serving their country,” said Bryan Marks, a San Jose fire captain who, along with his girlfriend Stacey Hansen, has returned more than 440 tags.
“Maybe this is our little way of trying to rectify that, make something right out of all that was wrong about that,” he said.
The tags spoke for the troops when soldiers couldn’t — telling medics their blood type and chaplains their religion. If they died, “The one thing they could rely on to get them home, it’s their dog tags,” said Robert Mann of the Navy Department’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii.
For some veterans who spent decades trying to distance themselves from a painful chapter of their lives, the gesture has triggered powerful emotions.
Gesture can reduce some to tears
When the Roskams went to Jefferson, Texas, to give Denzil Messman the tag he lost jumping from a helicopter into a firefight, “This big burly guy just wept when he held it,” Martha Roskam said.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” said Messman, a 55-year-old retired postal worker. “Them dog tags is a piece of your person. They become you, they are you.”
But other veterans and their families don’t want any part of the reminders.
“Some are extremely bitter about it,” Marks said. “We’ve had hang-ups, or guys who said it was theirs but they don’t want it, (that) they’re done with that part of their lives.”
The tags’ authenticity has even triggered some debate among critics.
“These dog tags are manufactured today by the thousands by very clever street merchants,” said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Defense Department’s POW/Missing Personnel Office.
Thousands of tags lost during war
Not only were machines that made them left behind when the United States pulled its troops out of Vietnam, but so were some records. “Anybody could plow through them and pluck off the numbers,” Greer said. Information about veterans also can be found on the Internet, as can companies that manufacture similar tags.
But Mann, whose unit searches, recovers and identifies unaccounted Americans killed in war, said that in going through some 3,000 dog tags found in Vietnam, he only found one that was bogus.
He said it isn’t surprising there would be so many dog tags still in Vietnam, given that countless troops lost them and had replacements made. Some even had extras, said Robert McMahon, a disabled veteran in New Hampshire who has returned 1,200 dog tags to veterans.
Anthony Kurr, who lives in Schaumburg, has no doubt he got back an authentic one.
“I knew this was my original dog tag because I remember it said A pos (blood type) and the replacement just said A,” he said. A copy or fake dog tag with that significant difference, he said, “would be too much of a coincidence.”
For the veterans tracked down by the Roskams — who hired a private investigator to help — what matters most is that somebody was thanking them for their service.
Upon receiving his tag, Reginald Gay wrote the couple: “It has been 30-plus years since my return from South Vietnam, and no one has said thank you!”
“That’s what I thought was the most important thing,” he said recently.