It was a chance encounter overseas that has turned into a series of random acts of kindness here in the United States. An Illinois couple is making it their mission to reunite Vietnam War veterans with some personal possessions that were lost more than 30 years ago.
It all started with a business trip to Vietnam in the summer of 2001. In the middle of a crowded market in Ho Chi Minh City, Martha Roskam made her discovery.
“I held them in my hand,” said Roskam, “and I felt a profound sense of sadness, because I knew every single one of these told a story.”Thirty-seven dog tags, belonging to U.S. soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, were being sold by a street vendor.
“I was incensed,” said Verlyn Roskam, Martha’s husband and a Korean War veteran himself. “I said why in the world are dog tags of American G.I.s being sold on the street 30 years later.”
The Roskams bought all 37 dog tags for $20 — each of them a little piece of America, with a name, social security number and blood type, all of them left behind in Vietnam. But by whom? And were any of the soldiers still alive?
Back in the States, the Roskams enlisted the help of their son, Peter, an Illinois state senator. The search was on.
“We have an obligation to return these at this point,” said Peter Roskam, “and we ought not to let these sit in a drawer and let them just linger as trinkets.”
For 90 years, young American soldiers going into battle have worn what might appear to be an insignificant piece of tin, but to those whose names and vital statistics are stamped on the tags, they mean everything. Who they were, and who they are.
So far, the Roskams have returned 18 dog tags to veterans who survived and to families who lost their loved ones in the war. Painful memories have led some veterans to refuse the offer to return the dog tags. There are still 11 veterans left to find. Their names are listed on the Roskams’ Web site, at roskamdogtag.com.
One name stamped in metal on the lost tags was Private First Class Eddie Davis, with the 1st Batallion, 9th Marines.
“The name of our company was The Walking Dead,” said Davis.
Davis was in Vietnam for a year in the late ’60s, and his experiences changed him forever.
“It gave me a different respect for life,” said Davis, “you know, [to] want to be a better person.”
Today, Davis is a County Supervisor in Sanford, Florida. He’s been married for 36 years to his wife, Bernice, and has four children. After four years of searching for Davis, the Roskams found him and presented him with his dog tag in an emotional ceremony at the VA Healthcare Clinic in Orlando on September 29th.
“I know y’all put a lot of time and effort in getting the dog tags,” a teary Davis said to the Roskams during his speech at the ceremony. “I just want to personally thank both of you. I really appreciate it.”
After the ceremony, Davis reflected on his time in Vietnam and the emotions triggered by the return of the dog tags.
“It’s like a piece of a missing puzzle,” said Davis, “so now the puzzle is complete.”
“This is not a chore or anything like that,” said Martha Roskam. “It is a privilege to meet people, and to be able to give that little piece of the puzzle back to them.”
“They’ve entrusted some very deep emotions with us,” said Peter Roskam, “and we’re respecting that. We’re honoring that.”
Curtis Vogel is a producer for NBC's “Today” show.