Woman's mission: Find Vietnam dog tags, track down owners
A simple message left on Ken Archambault’s answering machine one Saturday night a few years ago brought 34 years of suppressed war memories crashing back.
Someone was looking for the Ken Archambault who’d fought in Vietnam.
The caller found the right guy.
She had something of his.
More curious than stunned, Archambault called her back.
“I didn’t know if it was a prank call or what, but figured I’d give her a call and see what happens. She said she had my dog tags. She read off my ID number. It was right. W3156095. That was me.
“I didn’t remember losing them.”
He doesn’t know if the tags really are those he wore during the war or if they’re one of the countless fakes circulating in Vietnam, said Archambault, 57, of Brewster, Mass.
Nor does he care, he said.
“They’ve got my name on it, so yeah, I guess I wanted them,” he said.
The caller’s voice on his machine was that of Stacey Hansen, who four years ago was backpacking through Vietnam when she ran across some American G.I. dog tags. She had seen a few for sale at markets and little shops and asked if there were more.
She was brought to a what she thinks was a Vietnamese military building, where inside a glass case, she was shown hundreds. She bought all 566 of them, for about $2 apiece.
“Why did I do this? I think Vietnam vets got a really bad deal in the way they were treated when coming home,” said the 35-year-old firefighter and paramedic in San Jose, Calif.
“Everyone knows it was a political war and politics are always going to surround war. But to me, it’s so sad that there was no support for them when they came home,” Hansen said.
“I’m not necessarily in favor of our guys being in Iraq, but I certainly wouldn’t spit on them and call them names when they got to the airport. [Vietnam vets] were made to feel shameful for going to war over there, and here I am thinking ‘This doesn’t compute. They’re going over there to do what our country has asked them to do.’”
She returns to Vietnam next week in search of more tags. Then she will catalog what she finds, post the names on her Internet site, www.vietnamdogtags.com, and seek out owners or their families.
It’s an endeavor that consumes an average of three or four hours a day as she and her boyfriend work to track down vets and family members who might want to see the return of the tags.
But more harm than good could be coming for efforts like Hansen’s, said Larry Greer, spokesman of the Pentagon’s POW/Missing Personnel Office.
“We get reports from families, and we meet with them frequently, that they’ve been contacted by well-meaning people seeking to return dog tags of loved ones. For some, for most, it brings back hurtful memories,” Greer said. “However, we have also had accounts of family members of servicemen, those missing in action or killed in action, and for some of those family members they’ve expressed appreciation.”
It was a surreal moment when Amanda Zucroff-Moore learned that her brother’s dog tags were being returned to the family, she said.
“It was painful and wonderful, and while remembering him all over again is a joy, you’re also remembering he’s lost, and that is a stab to the heart again,” said the 46-year-old, who lives in Alice, Texas.
Her memories of Lance Cpl. Steven Zucroff are “little girl memories” — she was 11 when her 21-year-old brother was killed in action in 1968 in Vietnam. “I remember he was tall, big, loving. I felt safe with him.”
For years, there has been a cottage industry in Vietnam manufacturing G.I. dog tags, Greer said.
“They’re usually sold to American tourists with the pitch that ‘We found these, and perhaps you’d want to find their owners or their families back in the U.S.,’” he said. “These things are easy to duplicate, because when American forces pulled out in the 1970s, they often tossed dog tag stamping machines on the trash dumps. The blank metal was also tossed, or the enterprising Vietnamese craftsman could easily use metal of his own.”
Hansen maintains that the nearly 1,000 tags she has are authentic. Her collection has grown because a man read about her project in the media and gave her some 300 he had, and she picks some up here and there in her travels. None are duplicates, she said, and no one has disputed the authenticity of the 310 she has returned.
“I asked DOD for help and their first response was, ‘They’re all fake, stop doing this,’” Hansen said. “Then they turned around and in the same conversation asked me to box them up and send them and they would get all the tags to the family. I told them it has taken 30 years. If they haven’t done it by now, they’re not going to do it.”
Of the 2.7 million men and women in the U.S. military who served in the designated war zone, 1,854 remain missing, Greer said. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington lists the names of 58,178 Veterans who died or who remain missing.
“To date, in the nearly 30 years we’ve been investigating these reports, no one dog tag brought back by any tourist has been useful in determining the fate of a missing American,” Greer said. “Most of those tags are not real. What we do know is real the pain this little exchange generates among the families.”
[RECIPETAGNEW]E-mail Sandra Jontz at: email@example.com
Photo courtesy of Ken Archambault
Vietnam veteran Ken Archambault holds a set of dog tags with his name and his identification number stamped on them that 35-year-old Stacey Hansen said she found while backpacking in Vietnam four years ago. A few years ago, Hansen called Archambault, telling him she’d found his tags. “I didn’t remember losing them,” he said. Real or not, Archambault said he wanted to have them.