Friday, December 11, 2009

If You Find a Vietnam-era Dog Tag

TOP often receives inquiries from tourists, veterans and foreigners who visit Vietnam and come upon personal effects and dog tags. Many do not know what to do with them; most want to return them to veterans or family and ask for our help.

We appreciate these Good Samaritans who rescue these dog tags in Vietnam. TOP's policy and resources do not allow us to act as an intermediary for tag returns outside the TOP organization; we encourage them to donate the tags to TOP so we can integrate them into the process which we have developed over many years and steadfastly work to reunite them with their owners.

Additionally, many outside the TOP organization come upon tags of an unknown era--not in Vietnam. The majority of such finds are sometimes discovered in yard sales, spring cleaning, and likely not Vietnam related. In these cases, TOP's Personal Effects mission is solely for Vietnam-era tags. In the event someone may throw a tag or effect away, we invite them to donate such non-Vietnam-era effects to our military collection for public displays. TOP is aware of individuals who sell such effects & memorabilia on eBay; however, it is important to note that TOP will never sell these treasures. Non-Vietnam-era effects not used for TOP's public display, may sometimes be donated to other military (sometimes traveling) museums (not-for-profit).

Please visit the TOP website Personal Effects List and witness over 1,900 personal effects (mostly dog tags) that we are actively working to reunite with living veterans or the surviving families of veterans who were either killed in action or may have survived the war but have subsequently died.

Tours Of Peace (TOP) Vietnam Veterans is a nonprofit organization founded in 1998 by a Vietnam veteran Marine. Our mission provides veterans, their families, and surviving family members, with opportunities for healing from the Vietnam War.

TOP recognizes the importance of these dog tags to the veterans and families and strives to keep them from becoming just another tourist souvenir trinket. We appreciate the fact that you purchased these tags and wish to have them rightfully returned to their owners.

The current TOP dog tag inventory has been acquired in several ways, some of which include:

  • TOP recovers personal effects through contacts who collect them on our behalf. Additionally, purchases of personal effects sold in Vietnam can be made thanks to monetary gifts to TOP; as well, trip members assist with the recovery of effects in Vietnam (when we take veterans and their families to revisit the place where they were stationed and fought).

  • Donations from Vietnamese who know what we are trying to do and give them to us at no cost.

  • Donations from Americans and tourists from other countries who recognize their importance and want us to include them in our “reunion process”.

This process includes:

Authentication: TOP painstakingly authenticates each dog tag as legitimate--not counterfeit. We have both Vietnamese war veterans and American Vietnam Veterans go through them and weed out any fakes. We also verify as much information on the tags as possible, i.e., military ID #'s vs. name with the actual military database information, and information about those listed on "the Wall." Furthermore, we verify the place the tag was bought or donated, with the area the veteran or deceased served. (The pictured dog tag here is in its original condition before a careful cleaning revealed the tag data. Although TOP goes to great lengths not to disturb the initial appearance of how the tag was received, the condition of some tags require us to get to the data, in order to return the tag.)

  • Documentation: We maintain an extensive database of each tag and all information we have relevant to its discovery, condition and eventual resolution. Furthermore each dog tag is listed on our website in the hopes that the veteran or their family may actually “find us”. This does happen and the more returned tags we have the more the word is out and the more “hits” our website receives.

  • Research: Our research is very extensive and includes a number of website databases. We start first at The Wall, with information gathered at the various memorial websites for soldiers who were Killed In Action. Beyond that, we conduct a number of other searches, military reunion sites, military locator search engines and recently have expanded into genealogical resources with good success in locating the families of veterans.

  • Contact: We are sensitive to the emotional issues that often come up when a veteran or family is notified of the find. Once we feel we have a “match” the individuals are contacted by mail and given the opportunity to overcome the initial shock prior to them contacting us.

  • Verification: TOP is extremely careful that personal effects are matched correctly with the rightful recipients. Even once they contact us, we have a verification process to assure that our “match” is exact.
  • Special Delivery & Presentation: Our presentation to recipients is done respectfully and solemnly. Each dog tag is enclosed in dark velvet box, accompanied by a letter of appreciation and recognition. (Occasionally a TOP representative will make a personal presentation of the personal effect.) This is all done at no cost or expense to those receiving dog tags or personal effects--thanks to those who contribute to TOP and our Personal Effects Program. We do this as a memorial or recognition of gratitude for the service of the person named on the dog tag.

Due to privacy laws, unless the recipients give their permission, we do not report back to those who donate personal effects on the specifics on the recipients, however, we do note in our database & documentation where the tag was recovered and by whom in our files, in the event a recipient would ask to contact the donor. Those who contribute effects are encouraged to monitor the web site for updates on the status of their donated tags.

Should you have Vietnam-era personal effects, you wish to donate to TOP, we invite you to send them to us addressed as follows: TOP Vietnam Veterans, 8000 S. Kolb Road, Suite 43, Tucson, AZ 85756. It is recommended to send them Priority Mail and in a manner the package can be tracked. Please put tracking on them and let us know in advance that they are coming so we can watch for them and report back to you regarding their safe arrival.

To those who rescue these precious items and donate them to TOP, we are deeply grateful. Thank you!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Challenges Of Being A Veteran

Veterans Day -- Today we honor all who have served honorably in the military -- in wartime or peace. TOP offers a bouquet of thanks for your service, appreciates your contributions and underscores that all who serve have sacrificed and done their duty.

There should also be a "Family Veterans Day." Families make sacrifices, yet receive little recognition. As one TOP widow once appropriately said, "Although we did not fight in Viet Nam, we fought on a different battlefield."

TOP invites you to read Michele McNair's November 6, 2009 blog perspective, "Veteran's Day: Let Us NEVER Forget." Michele's family life has been heavily steeped in the military. As well, Michele participated in one of TOP's Tours Of Peace. Michele's story emphasizes our belief of why family members deserve their recognition too; additionally, she is a great example of TOP Family & Educational Program trip participants.

Friends and supporters of veterans--Veterans Day does not exist without you. We veterans are thankful for your friendship and support.

It is sometimes difficult to separate Veterans Day from Memorial Day; this is underscored with the recent massacre at Ft. Hood. Being a veteran and living with service-related memories can be challenging. These memories may bubble up and prove difficult for veterans on Veterans Day. Nonetheless, it is important that veterans know how appreciated their service is.

Many lost friends and buddies to war. There are veterans who share "survivor's guilt"--having lived through their service experience while others did not. Likewise, many war-era veterans who did not serve in a combat theater feel guilty not doing the job their peers had to do. No matter what a veteran's job was and where they did their duty, we are grateful.

Survivors guilt can be severe--some veterans wished they had died in war with their comrades, rather than be mired in a life of fear, anger, terror, drugs and alcohol from their war. The fate of PTSD, drug & alcohol abuse, as a result of the trauma of war, can be hell. During the Civil War, General William Sherman said simply and accurately, "War is hell." Unfortunately, many veterans and families live this hell daily . . . indefinitely . . . long after service. They brought the war home with them.

Additionally, it is not an uncommon phenomenon for veterans who served in war to diminish their service, saying, "I didn't have it as bad as you guys . . . or, I had it easy compared to most . . ." Sometimes minimizing war involving is a coping mechanism.

As life is not challenging enough for many former servicemen: Sadly, veterans are often stereotyped in the news: For example, occasionally in news stories of crime & violence, the past military service of a suspect becomes part of the story, e.g., ". . . a former Marine," or, ". . . a Vietnam veteran . . ." Identifying crime suspects by military service is discriminatory behavior, no different from racial discrimination or profiling. This Veterans Day might be a good starting point to begin a campaign of enlightenment within and those around you, to become aware of discriminatory behaviors which profile military or ex-military as violent, criminal or uneducated.

Conversely, in this day & age, the public and media have a propensity for elevating public figures who break laws, abuse substances, are involved in violent behaviors and morally corrupt. Some of these stars, musicians, athletes, and reality figures are labeled as "heroes." Unfortunately, their feats and accomplishments have nothing to do with courage and unconditional sacrifice for the good of others. Meanwhile, veterans who fit the old-fashioned definition of "hero"--quietly live difficult lives of humility, lacking recognition for their unconditional sacrifice for the good others.

Today, is a good day to redefine the true meaning of "heroes." Begin with the veterans in your life: Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters . . . relatives . . . veteran friends . . . veteran co-workers . . . the neighbor with a military bumper sticker . . . the person in the mall with a military baseball cap. Fellow veterans, remember to thank the veterans in your life too.

Thank your veterans for their service and sacrifice. Veterans Day is an opportunity to honor living veterans. Memorial Day is an opportunity to honor those who gave their lives in service. Realize the veteran heroes who your life is blessed with.

TOP (Tours Of Peace) Vietnam Veterans is honored to be a non-profit organization for veterans and families. We are proud to be a part of veteran & their family's lives . . . especially on this very special day.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Updated Personal Effects List

Cleaning Dog Tags and Recent Returns

TOP recently returned from our last trip with more personal effects. We have an updated Dog Tag List for your perusal.

Many of these artifacts reflect the harsh environment they have been in these past decades.

TOP's policy is to endeavor to return the effects as they are found. However, this may not always be possible (see our example in this post).

When dog tags are unrecognizable, it is especially important to glean enough data in order to be able to identify the service member and have the information necessary for either surviving family or Vietnam veterans to verify and confirm a match.

The first step, when dealing with tags corroded by rust, dirt and other elements, may be to carefully hand clean the tag with gentle tools. If that does still does not yield data, then we use a sonic cleaner, similar to what professional jewelers use. In severe cases, tags are thoroughly sonically cleaned on both sides, as many times as necessary. The cleaning, yet preserving the integrity of the tag can be time consuming and challenging.

Many tags are so fragile that they are almost paper-thin and can break in two with the slightest pressure. These tags are identified with instructions on handling.

There are some cases where the information and data is unrecognizable, even after the careful & gentle cleaning processes. In these cases, the information on our database may rarely be questionable.

The results though of returning the dog tags are unquestionable! As evidenced by the responses of recipients, such as Vietnam veteran, Samuel Barton, who after receiving his lost dog tag wrote TOP, "Words cannot describe my appreciation of your efforts to bring closure to our Vietnam experience,THANK YOU,THANK YOU! Did I say THANK YOU for the return of my lost Tag?!”

Importantly, last month TOP returned the dog tag of KIA Vietnam soldier, Roger Buren Propst, to his namesake, Roger Buren Propst Jr., who said to us afterward, "I just wanted to say thank you for getting my Father's dog tag to me. I cannot tell you how incredible it was to receive that. It is so nice to have a piece of my Dad."

Likewise, in return, we are grateful for the sacrifices of our veterans and surviving family members: Thank you!

Now, we have updated our recent Personal Effects (Dog Tag) list to include our recent finds in Vietnam. Please take time to look it over and try to find the names of loved one's, friends, those you served with . . . perhaps our Vietnam veterans will find their own names at:

Good luck and thank you in advance for please helping us to return these lost treasures to those of whom they belong to.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

American's Personal Effect Returned to Germany

Tag "Worth it's weight in gold," travels around the world to family

Berlin, Germany--TOP (Tours Of Peace) Vietnam Veterans has reunited the personal effect of Killed-In-Action soldier Russell Fordham, with family in Berlin, Germany. Son, Michael, received the dog tag on behalf of family. In addition to the dog tag's long journey from Vietnam to Germany via America, the effect has a long, poignant story.

Born in 1933, Russell was a highly decorated soldier, who served 2-tours in Vietnam and received the Bronze Star; he also was awarded medals from service in Germany and Korea.

During Russell's service in Germany, he met his bride-to-be, Christa. The Fordham's lived the life of a military family in America. Sadly, Russell died in Vietnam, September 4, 1969. After the loss of husband & father, Christa and the Fordham children eventually returned to Germany, where they reside to this date.

TOP is grateful to German journalist, Ilka Hahn, in assisting with the final arrangements of the tag's return to family in Berlin. In the past, Ilka traveled & participated with TOP, in Vietnam, as an Education Program participant, and documented TOP's work in several European venues.

Ilka wrote about the Russel Fordham dog tag and Michael Fordham supplemented the story with family heirloom pictures of Russell receiving one of his decorations, and standing next to an American flag for the article.

Ilka's article reflects the German perspective and is translated in English for our blog and web site:
By Ilka Hahn
“The German Mail recently delivered a worthless piece of metal to Michael Fordham in Berlin-Spandau. Still, Fordham did not know whether to laugh or to cry. The reason: This piece of metal is the last memory of his father who died in Vietnam. It is almost 40 years ago that Russell C. Fordham, a multiply decorated SFC, served in Vietnam for the second time. In September 1969, artillery hit a recovery camp where Fordham stayed at that time. He died on the operating table shortly after. Nobody knows if he was still wearing the piece of metal around his neck in that moment or if he had already lost it before.

The Americans call these pieces of metal “Dog tags.” To quickly identify the wounded and dead, the essentials are stamped on them: name, confession, blood group et cetera. For many veterans, however, this piece of metal means more than just an ID in times of war. They keep it for a life time – as a part of themselves. The US-organization “Tours of Peace” (TOP) has now found the dog tag of Russell C. Fordham. TOP helps American veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: Soldiers who, due to their war experiences, became alcoholics, aggressive or unable to keep up personal relationships. And TOP returns old dog tags, that are still dug out or found in Vietnam, to their owners or family.

When Russell C. Fordham died, his son Michael was just seven years old. Fordham met his German wife Christa in Berlin. He was stationed in Germany for five years. “My mother used to work in an American shopping center called 'PX' in Berlin-Zehlendorf. After three proposals she finally accepted. That was in 1961”, says Michael (46). The family then moved to Columbus, Georgia, and Michael Fordham today still holds an American passport. “My dad taught me how to play baseball and how to calculate. I inherited his technical understanding. Back then I often watched him repair cars.” On the desk in his office he still keeps a photograph of his father.

Two years after Russell’s death, Michael Fordham, his younger sister Susan and his mother moved back to Berlin. At their weekly meetings his today 71-year-old mother regularly tells Michael stories about his father. Also, his five aunts and uncles in the US often talk about how Russell was like. And still: The worthless piece of metal held a surprise for him, after all those years. “I didn’t know that he was a protestant. I always thought that he was a baptist. For me, this tag is like an important piece of a puzzle that was missing”, says the telecommunication engineer. “It was a sad but at the same time wonderful feeling to actually hold it in my hands. I wish it could talk and tell me what happened back then.” But even if this will never happen: “This tag will get a very special place. It is worth its weigh in gold.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Box of Peace

Recently, TOP recovered a personal effect belonging to Congressional Medal of Honor winner, David F. Winder. The return of his dog tag to surviving family resurrected his memory and reminds us of how special and rare true heroes are. Ironically, David Winder's story is about peace; his sacrifice exceptional because of his convictions.

We live in a time when the word "hero" is casually used and associated with anyone above grade. This is also an era where words have the same worth as actions. However, David Winder's incredible bravery, under unusual circumstances, reminds us of the true meaning of who a hero really is. He was a man who spoke with the pure honesty of his actions. defines a hero as, "A man of distinguished courage, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities." Certainly, David lived up to this standard and then some: He was the old-fashion hero that movies should be made of, and books written about.

In America, the highest of award for the bravest heroes is the Congressional Medal of Honor. David's acts of courage epitomizes and is the quintessential example of this award.

(Left, previously unpublished reverse view of David's tag.) We invite you to get to know this exceptional human being; an inspiration, who offers hope for humanity--no matter which side of a war one is on. Understanding what David did, especially given his belief system, enables comprehension of the essence of the Congressional Medal of Honor award.

Here, we have included some of the stories generated by his dog tag's return. Please read all the accounts, as they compliment each other and result in the culmination of an incredible true story. As you read each cited article, you will become closer to David. Each piece, adds to the next; reporters and editors dug deeper with each story, and by the time of posting this blog entry, the combined facts, thoughts, interviews and feelings will leave you experiencing the awe, inspiration and tragedy of a powerful story comprising a real American hero and man of peace.

The dog tag worn by David at the moment of his heroic deeds traveled time; through fate, it fell into TOP's hands, and was returned to the other side of the world under our care. Once the effect was identified as belonging to a great hero, it was respectfully seated in black velvet, contrasted by a white satin backdrop, and placed in a protective white box, in preparation for its final leg escort home to David's family.

The trip team who recovered the tag was first notified of the magnitude of the find. Not long after, the story in the making was announced to the public in TOP's recent Newsletter.

Prior to tag's return, Arizona Daily Star reporter, Carol Ann Alaimo, outlined the "improbable chain of events" that led to "Army hero's dog tag found by a group here."

Vietnam veteran daughter, TOP trip participant and newspaper columnist Shelley Wigglesworth was a member of the team who came upon the tag during the final days of the momentous trip. After the news revelation, she wrote about a powerful highlight of her trip being a part of recovering David's personal effect.

Meanwhile, before accompanying the effect to Philadelphia, the small, simple box cardboard box, seemed to take on a life of its own; inside, was the object of great significance and priceless cargo.

The box that carried this man of peace's tag, has since become known around TOP as the "Peace Box."

The day the tag was returned equaled a Tour Of Peace condensed into several hours. It had all the components of the good TOP does. The ceremony and presentation was covered by the media and detailed afterward in several venues.

Upon arrival at the home of brother, Joseph Winder, the tag was removed from the simple cardboard peace box and escorted inside; so began the moving presentation of David F. Winder’s dog tag. Pictured is Joseph, between Vietnam veteran, TOP participant & supporter, Thomas Brinson, and Jess DeVaney. Laurence Kesterson, son of killed-in-action soldier, Charles Kesterson, took the photo. Larry revisited his father's footsteps in Vietnam with TOP.

Philadelphia Inquirer journalist, Kia Gregory, quietly & reverently, attended the ceremony and later shared with the public more details of this growing story, and how "Vietnam hero brother receives long-lost memento." As well, the photographic gallery from the piece tells more than a thousand words.

"What a Christmas gift!" Joe exclaimed, fighting back exasperated tears. Pictured left, is Joseph's brother's tag in his hand.

Joe indicated that he would eventually wear his brother's tag.

After the ceremony, on the return home, delayed flights gave pause for thought and reflection. While waiting in Denver, the empty box was produced from an overcoat--the box that once held David Winder’s tag brought incredible emotion in the airport. A decision was made to spare the "Peace Box"--it has been kept and preserved.

Checking voicemail, while awaiting boarding the final return leg home to Tucson, we had received a call from Jonathan D. Silver of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jonathan would add more to David's poignant story in his article, "Dog tag of medic killed in Vietnam returned to his brother."

Upon returning home, with the personal effect safe in family hands, we received a call from David Winder's hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. Larry Phillips, Editor of the Mansfield News Journal, spoke with TOP at great length. Larry had been extensively researching David Winder, having learned about the tag find and return. Amazingly, one of his research finds was that nothing had been published about David F. Winder and his Congressional Medal of Honor award in David's hometown. Larry proclaimed, "In this Sunday's edition, we will 'right a great wrong'." Larry was true to his word: Next Sunday, David's hometown newspaper devoted the front page to David in the beautifully written story, "Hero's tags take long journey home." The article provides additional, previously unpublished pictures, and information not found in previous accounts.

One of the goals of TOP's Personal Effects Program is to ensure we never forget our gentle heroes. In the case of David F. Winder, the mission was accomplished. Perhaps some peace within has been reconciled in the hearts of David's loved ones. Peace is the rainbow that follows good works. While politicians & activists ironically fight over peace, Tours Of Peace Vietnam Veterans quietly sidesteps around that and simply does it.

From time to time, we peek inside the empty box, and marvel at the peace that lies inside. The box also symbolizes our TOP veterans and families who once held emotion inside and kept their War experience tightly within. Our programs offer an opportunity for release, healing & closure--peace within.

All bad things must come to an end: A metal tag that we once associated with war, is now a symbol of peace. The return of this dog tag gave birth to a new life of memories about David; as well, the dog tag once worn in war, is now worn by his brother, in peace.