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A Wafer-Thin Link to a Vet's Past

A San Jose couple work to return Vietnam War dog tags to their American owners, calling the effort a way to say thank you.

November 27, 2005|Joann Klimkiewicz | Hartford Courant Staff Writer

The phone call came about two months ago.

"Is this Arthur Wiknik who served in Vietnam?" the voice asked.

Indeed it was.

Did Wiknik recall losing, all those years ago, one of his military-issue dog tags?

There were a lot of Vietnam memories seared into Wiknik's mind. But none about dog tags.

Bryan Marks, who was calling from California, said he bought the tag from a vendor on a recent trip to Vietnam. He read the stamped metal he held in his hand.

It all sounded right to Wiknik, a Connecticut resident who had been drafted into the Army at 19. Except the last line: "Protestant." He had been raised Lutheran.

Then the memories shook loose.

When the clerk asked Wiknik his religion the day his tags were made, he had answered, "Protestant." "I don't know why," says Wiknik, now 56. "I was a kid. I was in the Army. I didn't want to be there."

Six months later, he decided to be exact in case something happened to him. Wiknik got a new set and, as best he can recall, tossed the original out with an old pair of boots.

But what did this stranger want with him and his old military tag?

Only to reunite Wiknik with the found piece of history, Marks said, and to thank him for serving his country. He wanted no money, just a mailing address.

"I said, 'I don't know what the heck this guy is up to,' " recalls Wiknik. Having just published his Vietnam memoir, "Nam Sense," he wondered if the caller found him that way and wanted something more.

Still, he gave his address and figured he would see what came of it.

Marks, it turned out, is one of a handful of Americans on a quest to return to Vietnam veterans the dog tags they left behind. They've combed the country's souvenir shops and roadside vendors' wares, snapping up tags for a few dollars each. They pay from their own pockets and ask for nothing in return.

"The way these guys were treated -- it was a very unfortunate time," says Marks, 38, whose girlfriend, Stacey Hansen, 36, embarked on the effort more than three years ago. The two San Jose firefighters track the project and a database of names on their website, Vietnamdogtags.com.

"This is our way of thanking them and doing a little bit of good in the world," Marks says. "That's it."

Just before Veterans Day, the pair celebrated their 500 mark. That's 500 phone calls made, 500 dog tags returned, 500 thank-yous to veterans whose homecomings they say were unjustly silent.

That leaves about 1,500 to go.

The spark came during Hansen's first visit to Vietnam, when she saw a set of American dog tags behind a glass case in a museum. Too young to remember the war herself, she had heard many personal accounts from colleagues in the fire service. And when she saw those tags -- which carried not just personal information, but also the chilling bond to death and injury -- she wanted to bring them back to American soil and into the hands of their rightful owners.

Phone listings, the Internet, private investigators who donate their services -- Hansen and Marks track down veterans any way they can. Some quietly accept the tags without discussion. Others are touched at a stranger's gesture and glad to share their stories. A small number, maybe 50 so far, have declined.

"We've been hung up on ... or they'll say, 'It doesn't mean anything to me, I don't want it,' " Marks says. "We don't judge that reaction ... because there's no way we can understand what these people went through."

The hardest phone calls to make, he says, are to the families of veterans who died in action.

"The last thing we want to do is hurt someone in this process," he says.

Marks and Hansen keep a log of the effort, tracking the names, where they found the tag, when it was claimed and the veteran's personal story. It's a small-time operation, Marks says, with a clutch of tag-filled bins sitting in a corner of their office. Stretches of time will go by without a single phone call, and then there are stretches when they step up their searches.

Like the one, a few months back, that led them to Wiknik.

Marks found a batch of tags that had sat untouched for more than a year. One of the first they fished out carried the veteran's distinctive last name -- easier to track than the painfully common Martins and Smiths that tend to pile up.

"It took me 10 seconds to find [his phone number] on the computer," Marks says. "I called him immediately."

Sure enough, not long after that phone call, a tiny package arrived at Wiknik's home.

"When I opened it, I just jerked my head back and this whole rush of emotion came over me," recalls Wiknik, a manager at a sheet metal shop in Waterford, Conn.

"Here was this little piece of my personal history from 35 years ago that I had completely forgotten about. And it was right here in my hand."

Wiknik says he was overcome by the selfless act more than by the reunion with his tags.

"Someone cared enough to do this. Someone who doesn't know me, never heard of me, has no ax to grind with me," he says. "I've got tears in my eyes just thinking about it."

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