Marc Yablonka

Dog Tags Take the Long Road Home

Story and photos by Marc Yablonka

While the following story speaks for itself, I must provide an update: The story speaks of two dog tags I brought back from a trip to the old battlefield at Khe Sanh. The U.S. Navy declared one of those dog tags as “unsubstantiated.” I kept the “unsubstantiated” dog tag (translation: phony) anyway, hoping against hope that one day its rightful owner, or his family, would come forth, and that the Navy would be proven wrong. Then, in the August 2005 issue of Vietnam magazine, I read an article about the work that JPAC, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, was doing to, in part, reunite real dog tags with their owners or next of kin. Encouraged by the article, I submitted the information on the “unsubstantiated” dog tag to JPAC. As it turned out, the Navy was wrong.

“Charles White, Catholic,” had actually been a real Marine. JPAC then informed me that they would contact the family, which they did. More time passed. A year, maybe two, went by. It was clear to me that, for whatever reason, Charles White, or his kin, had no interest in receiving the dog tag I had brought back from Khe Sanh.

In March 2008, I found out why. On a trip to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, in the book that holds the names of the over 58,000 servicemen and women killed in action in Vietnam, was the name Charles White. And I also found the name at the top of a panel on The Wall.

I placed the dog tag directly below the panel, said a prayer, and walked away fighting back the tears.

Story follows below: 

 

Vietnamese man at old Khe Sanh battlefield.

It was near midnight one night in the fall of 2000, when the ringing of the phone jarred me awake.

The voice on the other end was hesitant, and seemed a thousand miles away. A family member was not in trouble or gravely ill, but someone had indeed died – 34 years ago. “You don’t know how tough it’s been to get up the nerve to call you tonight, but I just wanted to thank you for what you did.”

In 1995, the red clay dirt of Khe Sanh, 20 years after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, held eerie reminders of the 77-day siege that took the lives of 300 U.S. Marines and about 10,000 North Vietnamese Army regulars, in 1968.

All these years later, discharged artillery shells were everywhere. Unspent ammo had taken the lives and limbs of almost 50 locals in search of scrap metal just this year on the now-peaceful battlefield. No limbs were laid about the battlefield, however. No blood staining the earth either. Just the sprouting of a fledgling coffee crop, Vietnam’s latest export.

Then he appeared out of nowhere, walking down a path right toward me. A Vietnamese man holding out a very bent U.S. Marine Corps tin mess plate.

“Thirty dollar. You give me 30 dollar,” he said, in broken English, holding it up so I couldn’t help noticing a U.S. Department of Defense ID card that (had I been fool enough to spring for) would have meant a year’s salary for him. My eyes then strayed to the plate’s other contents: Dog tags – perhaps 20 of them. Many looking like they themselves had seen the strain of a battle – won – yet at such a high cost. They were tarnished with the memory of a Vietnam America had left behind 20 years before.

My fingers began sifting through the tags. I felt as if they were moving through lost time.

“You ought to give me these to take back and turn over to my government,” I told the man, who was trying to eke out a semblance of a living at the expense of a war then 20 years finished.

“You give me 30 dollar,” came his reply.

I settled on two of what seemed, with apologies for writing these next words, the most war-torn. I paid the beggar two U.S. dollars for the dog tags, and he was gone, but not before I lifted my Nikon, and fired off two frames of him.

Old Khe Sanh battlefield.

Decades after the war, long after the Battle of Khe Sanh, spent ammo still litters the fields around the old base. 

The dog tags

One of the tags had belonged to Marine Private First Class David B. Arnold.

“I’m calling from Palatine, Illinois. My name’s Kurt Arnold,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “You were in Vietnam?”

“After the war, yes, three times, as a journalist,” I heard myself say. “Have we met?”

“No, but you brought back my brother David’s dog tag. And I just wanted to thank you for what you did,” he repeated.

My spine froze. “But I thought it was a phony. I thought the Navy wrote that…”

In the five years since my return from Vietnam I had completely forgotten that the letter from the Department of the Navy had declared only one of the tags unable to be substantiated. An example of the cruel hoax of a cottage industry in Vietnam that includes not only fake dog tags, but fake Zippo lighters etched with AO’s (areas of operation), sold in stalls all over Saigon today.

In the mental fog of that night, I could only recall, “It is also a possibility that the tag was made in Vietnam. It is not uncommon for the local inhabitants to do this for financial gain.”

After talking with Kurt for nearly an hour, I dug up the letter.

“We have forwarded a letter to the last known address of the Arnold family and have asked if they desire to receive the tag,” it read.

It had taken the Arnold family five years to muster the strength to call. That was something Kurt’s mother could not face. One can not blame her.

In spite of David’s terrible loss, “At the time, mom thought ‘I’ve got seven other kids who need me more,’ ” Kurt recalled. She has since lost two other children, one in a car accident, another in a shooting death.

So it befell Kurt, himself a former U.S. Navy boatswain’s mate, aircraft handler, and crash crew member at Guantanamo Naval Air Station, Cuba (1986-88), to make that call. But he, too, had difficulty picking up the phone for many years.

“When I got the letter, everything  seemed strange. How do you thank someone for something?” Kurt asked.

That night he had shown David’s letters, his obituary, and the dog tag to a friend of his wife’s. It had taken that to convince him. “I was three years old when David died. The only memory I have of my brother is of him at the funeral. Of this little veil, spread apart where the casket was,” said Kurt, a truck driver, from his home in Palatine.

Kurt has a distant memory of two Marines in dress blues coming to the door to speak to his mother. For a brief instant, she thought one of them was David. He resembled him so. Then, of course, her heart sank as they handed her the Western Union telegram in March 1969:

“I deeply regret to inform you that your son, Private First Class David B. Arnold, USMC, died 11 March 1969, approximately three and a half miles north of Fire Support Base Neville, Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam. He sustained gun shot wounds to the body from hostile small arms fire while on patrol.”

David was 19 years old.

The telegram is torn in half today, according to Kurt. Somehow along the way, its bottom was ripped away, so it can never reveal who sent it. Yet that tear is symbolic of Kurt’s 31-year search to know the brother he had never known. “There’s sadness, even jealousy because he knew me, and I never knew him. Then when the dog tag arrived,” said Kurt, “I would look at it and wonder, ‘What were you like?’”

Kurt’s parents always hid the letters David had sent home in a manila envelope in their bedroom. Kurt would often sneak in to read them in an attempt to answer that question. Often his parents would find him, and, as if wanting to spare him the pain they had suffered, they would move the manila envelope to another hiding place in the bedroom. But Kurt would always find it, and continue to ask himself questions about his brother.

“Not many words were ever said, but I could always see in mom’s eyes that there was a lot of hurt still. Even today I tiptoe around the questions I ask.”

David grew up in a time when, in Palatine, you didn’t question your country. “You did what you did for your country,” Kurt emphasized.

And David was a boy with a heart and a sense of humor to boot. A boy whose letters home spoke of discovering tiger cubs 10 yards from the DMZ. Letters that tried to reconcile the fact that wars mainly affect young people. Young people like himself and the 15-year-old Viet Cong guerrilla his platoon captured.

After David died, he became the kind of boy that Fremd High School, his alma mater, named a wing of its library after.

He was also a boy whose best friend in Vietnam looked like him, and had the same birthday as him. “The only difference was that they died a day apart,” Kurt said.

“It has been an ‘iffy’ subject. I didn’t know David – yet through all his letters – I feel as though I do. I don’t think a day goes by that Kurt doesn’t talk about him,” Kurt’s wife, Michelle, added.

Had he lived, the chances are good that David’s tour of duty would have been shorter than usual. President Richard Nixon, during what he termed the “Vietnamization” of the war, promised to, and then did, pull out David’s 3rd Marine Division in November 1969, nine months after his death.

When asked what he would have said to David if he had made it home, Kurt revealed, “It’s funny you should ask that. About a month ago, I drove past the cemetery, and placed a picture of my son at his tombstone.” He pauses and then repeats something he has silently spoken to David for a long, long time, “I love you, and I want to know what you were like.”

Marc Yablonka was a Chief Warrant Officer (CWO2) with the 40th ID Support Brigade, California State Military Reserve. He is a military journalist whose work has appeared in Stars and Stripes, Army Times, and other publications.

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