This is no simple post. It has many moving parts and a few unexpected turns. It takes a while for me to tell it from start to finish, but I can assure you it is well worth telling. Here goes...
My dad served our country for 3 years as a Marine, spending the majority of his time in M Company 3rd Battalion 27th Marine regiment. During that time he served a tour and a half of duty in Vietnam. His time in Vietnam is something he rarely speaks of, but over the years I have pieced together enough small details to understand how scary and complicated his time there was. In my dad's eyes he was just doing his duty. In my eyes he went above and beyond the call of duty to serve our country. My dad will always be a hero to me.
Many years back I went through an old trunk of my father's things at my grandparent's home and found a few old coats and fatigues that were just slightly bigger than my 20-some-odd year old frame. It struck me that my dad was not more than a young undeveloped teenager when he left for Vietnam. He probably weighed just over 130 pounds soaking wet and he had his whole life ahead of him. I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like (and still is like for current soldiers) to head off to foreign soil to fight in wars, where lives will be lost, when you are just old enough to vote and have only a fraction of the emotional equipment in your arsenal that a full-fledged adult acquires over a lifetime of learning. I took my dad's coat and pants as well as a jacket that was worn by my grandfather when he fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II. I proudly wore them in the years that followed, and they still hang in my closet today. The discolored name tag is hand stitched inside the collar of one coat and the cuffs of the other are terribly frayed. They are well worn, have seen much wear and tear, and hold great sentimental value to me.
While my father allowed me to take these pieces of clothing from the trunk he held onto a few smaller more meaningful objects. The dog tags he wore around his neck among them as well as the two purple hearts he earned after being injured in the line of duty. I never bothered to ask if there was anything else he carried with him while deployed. I just assumed he had brought it all back with him when he returned to the US in 1969. It wasn't until my dad forwarded me an email two weeks ago that I realized he had in fact left something behind in Vietnam. The email was from a man living in England and I read it three times before I really understood the magnitude of what was described in the email. In the email a man named Charles reached out to my father and in the subject of the email implored him not to press delete (despite the email coming from a total stranger) before reading it in its entirety. Thankfully my father read on and this is where the story begins.
"Last summer, I along with some close friends decided to take the trip of a life time and travel to South East Asia.... I was also fascinated to go in particular to Vietnam, due to the history of the country and the vast cultural impact that the American conflict there had on the planet. That being a piece of history that always fascinated me and one that we are not taught much of at school as Britain played no part in the war.
I spent two weeks in Vietnam and travelled the length of the country in that time, starting in Saigon and ending in Hanoi. We immersed ourselves in as many activities as possible, including seeing the war museums, tunnels, rural landscapes and cities. We made our way up the coast from Nah Trang to Hoi An and then next we arrived at Hue. I read about the battles that took place along the way and saw the sights and the imperial city, it is here that I made my interesting discovery. A local man was selling artefacts that he had discovered from out in the jungle, I believe that the locals use metal detectors to discover buried items from the war and then try to sell them to tourists. I felt quite saddened by this and believed personally that these items should be left buried and that the thought of handling any artefact from a battle is actually quite gruesome. However, when I saw among his items a rusted dog tag, I immediately felt that I was being given an opportunity and felt a duty to rescue this from the seller and repatriate to the family of the owner.
The Tag says as follows:
When I returned home with the dog tag I immediately set about trying to discover the rightful owner, but ran into some difficulty. You see, I assumed wrongfully that to be departed from the dog tag the owner would have perished like so many sadly did in that surrounding area as a result of what seems to have been a truly horrific encounter. Records were not easily searchable and nothing seemed to appear when searching under the service number.
Time passed before one evening I was regaling my good friend and house mate with tales of my trip. I was explaining where I had been and what I had found, including the Dog Tag. My house mate is a film maker by profession and an investigator by nature, naturally, he asked if I had tried to find out to whom it belonged, we once again set about trying to conclude this.
Having not been able to discover much and beginning to believe perhaps this was a counterfeit; Will managed to learn that the service number was that of an officer, we then searched for R.A Tilghman Jr with officer ranks prior to the name and it was then that we had the breakthrough! A library archive page that took us to St. Paul's School in Concord, NH, where we found a newsletter, the Alumni Horae I believe it's called, from 1983. And, there in the pages of the Alumni newsletter, Richard Tilghman Jr., photographed in 1983, at the 20th anniversary of his school class. We realised this put you at about the correct age for the Vietnam war and after further searching we then managed to find other pages linked to yourself. One link which spoke of your military background as an aerial observer in Quang Tri province, the province home to the city Hue where I discovered the tag!
We were so delighted to learn that you sir had survived your time served in Vietnam and the dog tag in my possession was not one of that of a fallen soldier. Scarily, it is amazing how quickly you can learn about someone on the internet once you have a lead. We managed to find you in numerous articles on the internet and it seems after sustaining battle injuries you have managed a very successful career in finance and continue to do work for veterans. I was also fascinated to learn of your family history and your father's time in WW2 and with decorations to match your own. We have hugely enjoyed learning a bit about you and piecing together this fascinating puzzle. This has been something that had been on my mind since being in Vietnam, which is an experience that, to this day, has had a huge effect on me. Obviously, this is insignificant to the experience you had as a man of the same age decades earlier.
All that is left is to return you your dog tag, concluding this wonderful strange coincidence. I would love to hear how it came to be that you lost the dog tag and a little of your time spent in the Hue area. I also understand if this represents a difficult part of your life and something you would rather leave behind, on a beach in South East Asia.
Please find an image attached. I can send the item to you secured delivery but I do feel it is something of great value, I see that you work in the New York area... I am there fairly regularly. I would be honoured too hand this to you in person."
And there you have it. It's a pretty amazing story right? My father feels strongly that Charles is the hero in this story. He could have just bought and saved the dog tag as an interesting artifact from his trip, or even turned a blind eye to it on that table and left it behind. I am so thankful that he bought it and while assuming it belonged to a fallen soldier decided to try and track down the family of the marine who lost it. If we didn't have modern technology I think it is safe to assume that Charles might never have found my father, a half a world away, living a relatively quiet life in the United States. I am so very grateful that one man's curiosity and thoughtfulness was able to bring about a happy ending in this simple human story about a man, a lost dog tag, the trip of a lifetime, and why it matters when we choose to do the right thing.