They looked so sad, laying in the bottom of a dusty case in a Vietnamese museum – a pile of dog tags worn by American troops during the war that raged in the Southeast Asian country for almost a decade.
So vacationing San Jose, Calif., firefighter Stacey Hansen bought them – for about two dollars each – and then spent the remainder of her trip scouring the country for more tags.
And now many of the 566 tags she collected are bringing comfort to those who lost loved ones in the Vietnam War, including fellow Californian Brad Zucroff, whose 21-year-old brother Steven was killed by a landmine.
At Zucroff’s home in nearby Santa Cruz, he brings out a box of his brother’s things, something he has not opened in 35 years.
Zucroff: "You've seen the name. Now you should see the person."
Hansen: "That's him?"
Zucroff: "That's my brother."
Hansen: "Oohhhhh.... (swoons)"
Zucroff: "On a pony!"
Hansen: "I want to give you something."
Zucroff (overwhelmed): “That's really amazing. Thank you, thank you, thank you. That's sweet!"
Hansen (emotional): "You're so welcome."
Hansen’s quest began when she visited a museum in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
Hansen: "This is such a personal thing. I couldn't believe that they were just lying in the bottom of some case! Those were all my American brothers."
She could not leave them behind, so she bought the dog tags for about two dollars apiece.
Bob Dotson: "How did you know you weren't being taken?"
Hansen: "Well, I didn't know 100 percent and I thought the worst thing that would be happening would be that I would be contributing to their poor economy."
Standing there, sorting through all those tarnished bits of metal, she wondered how they had been lost, and if there were more.
Dotson: "Did the Vietnamese people help you?"
Hansen: "Absolutely, yeah, they were great!"
A taxi driver wrote her a note in Vietnamese, explaining her search. It became her calling card as Hansen spent five weeks traveling all over the country –- and clearing out her savings account.
Hansen: "I didn't leave any tags that I saw. I bought every single one that I could find."
Dotson: "Why are you so passionate about this? A war that you don't remember. People you've never met?"
Hansen: "So many of them were teenagers or young men and they never had their life. So if I can bring some type of closure or healing to those families, I'm willing to do that."
Not that she didn’t have second thoughts –- finding all those GIs or their families seemed too daunting. So after she returned from Vietnam she put her collection in a closet.
But she couldn’t get the dog tags out of her mind, and six months later she pulled them down and decided to make a few phone calls.
Hansen (talking on phone): "I'm not looking for anything in return. All I'm looking for is an address to send them to."
She has already found 95.
Unlike Brad Zucroff, most live too far to visit, so Hansen has set up a Web site, www.vietnamdogtags.com, to allow Vietnam vets or their families to check whether tags belonging to them or their relatives are in her collection.
She also hopes that her story and Web site will serve as a catalyst forn other tourists who have picked up dog tags during trips to Vietnam to reunite them with veterans and family members.