by RD Foster
I have written numerous books, magazine and newspaper articles about the fallen warriors of Collin County whose names are engraved on the Wall of Honor at the Veterans Memorial Park in McKinney, Texas. Although my name is not on that Wall, I feel as though I am still a part of it. This story is about just that.
In 1966, I turned 18 and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Two weeks after I graduated from McKinney High School, I left for boot camp in San Diego, California. On my first day there I was issued two metal identification tags, referred to by GIs as dog tags. The tag is rather small, made of stout aluminum, and two inches long. The information on mine read:
(The M was for gasmask size, medium, and the A was for blood type.)
From that day on, those dog tags were part of me, as with every other serviceman. In Vietnam we wore one on a chain around our necks, and one laced within the strings of a jungle boot. The theory was, if you got your head blown off, you could still be identified, and vice versa. When I came home in May of 1969 and returned to civilian life, I put all my military stuff away. Years later I was going through it, found one of the dog tags, and started wearing it around my neck again, although the chances of getting my head blown off were a lot less by that time. The other tag wasn’t with the stuff, and I couldn’t remember what had happened to it.
On Memorial Day 2004, my wife, Trina, and I, had been visiting the gravesites of old friends: Bill Bryan, Tommy Holdbrooks, George Mahan, Gilbert Garza, James Malone, McKinney High School boys who had been killed in the War in Vietnam. When we got home I saw there was there was a call in my telephone messages from an old Marine Corps buddy from boot camp, Nick Nickelson who lives near Tyler, Texas: “RD, it’s Nick. Call me.”
I called, and he told me he had read an article in the newspaper about a girl, Stacey Hansen, who was a firefighter in California and had visited Vietnam recently. While there she had discovered many American GI’s dog tags for sale in small curio shops around the country. She ended up buying every one she found. When she got home, she created a website where she listed all the names of those guys. Nick went to the site and started looking through them to see if he recognized anyone. He did. It was Foster, R. D.
I immediately went to the site and saw my name there. It can’t be me, I thought. It must be somebody else with the same name. Things like this happen to other people you read about in the paper. I e-mailed the site and was asked for the information that was on the dog tag. I, being the skeptical sort, thinking it could be some sort of scam, reported everything as it was, except for one item. I wrote Protestant instead of Baptist.
The next day, a return e-mail arrived in which Stacey had said all the information matched, with a phone number to call as soon as possible. I called right away. When I spoke to her, she said there was one discrepancy, the tag she had said Baptist. I told her what I had done. She was as excited as I was and told me she was holding my dog tag in her hand. She said she had found it in a little shop near Chu Lai, about 60 miles south of Da Nang, an area I had known quite well. Just to hear the mention of those names brought back a flood of memories and emotions. I got a little choked up but managed to thank her from the bottom of my heart. I asked if I could send any money to help cover her expenses, but she said, “No way.” She felt as if returning the missing dog tags was her way of doing something for the veterans who have served her country.
On June 10, 2004, exactly 35 years and one month after I had returned from Vietnam, my long-missing dog tag arrived in the mail. I opened the envelope and pulled out the enclosed card that had a photograph Stacey had taken on the Perfume River during her trip to Vietnam. The dog tag was wrapped in white tissue, but before I unwrapped it I read the note she had written:
I am happy to have found you! Thank God you’re still around. Thank you for sharing a little about yourself with me. But mostly, thank you so much for your service in Vietnam. I know it’s because of men like yourself who have the guts to go to war that I enjoy the freedoms that I do. So thank you. May God bless you and grant you “Peace.” Take care.
I unwrapped the tissue and held the small piece of metal in my hand. It was my dog tag all right, the one issued in 1966. It was tarnished and still had a trace of that ever-so-familiar red dust around the edges. It had a slight crease across it that looked like it had been bent and someone had straightened it out. I was wishing that dog tag could talk and tell me where it had been for all those years. What stories it could tell. I wondered how many times someone had held it in their hand and wondered who Foster, R. D. was, and if he had lived or died. I guess I will never know, but then again, miracles do happen.
In 2011, when the Wall of Honor at the Veterans Memorial Park in McKinney was being constructed, I was an almost daily visitor to watch it come to life. On the day cement was being poured into the wall, I had my two dog tags with me. I placed the one I had kept all those years in a small jewelry box and asked the construction foreman to drop it inside the wall. He did, and I feel like a part of me will be forever with the names of my friends whose name are on that wall that were killed in Vietnam.
The one that miraculously came back to me, I still have, and it will be a part of me until the day I die.•