Lost Vietnam veteran's dog tag returned 46 years later

Lost Vietnam veteran's dog tag returned 46 years later

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JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) - A cherished piece of American history, lost decades ago during a war on other side of the world, is back where it belongs - inside Vietnam veteran Arnold "Bud" Pate's home. He can thank two fellow Marines from Michigan for the reunion, which was 46 years in the making.

Pate joined the Marines at the age of 17, destined to one day fight in Vietnam.

"I left here in October of '67 and got wounded the s day of May, 1968," Pate said. "I can remember it just like it was yesterday."

46 years after that day, Gunnery Sergeant Pate still carries with him more than just memories. He has a permanent reminder of his service on his right hand; a metal hook.

"We came to the bridge and we came across it like single file," Pate said.

What happened on that bridge would change the Johnson City man's life forever.

"When the explosion went off it got my arm," Pate said. "It just kind of slung my arm around my body like that and I knew then. The pain wasn't as severe as you would think, but it hurt."

The military quickly shuffled him to hospitals across the world. Unfortunately, there was no saving his arm. It wasn't until later that he realized his arm wasn't the only thing he lost in Vietnam. His dog tags were also missing.

"After I went all them different places all I wore was hospital gowns and I don't ever remember dog tags hanging around my neck," he said.

Pate's always had an extra pair, but that pair never saw war. His battle-tested ones were long gone or so he thought. Then he received a letter in the mail a few weeks ago from a father and son, fellow Marines from Michigan, and learned they made a startling discovery during a trip to Vietnam.

"We were walking down the street and came across a street vendor that had a whole bunch of U.S. military gear," Tim Dekryger recalled.

Dekryger and his dad Bill, who also fought in Vietnam, noticed vendors selling dog tags for less than $10 apiece.

"Initially I wanted to get a dog tag as a souvenir and then, the more I thought about it, I kind of realized that that was a very personal piece of history that someone left in country, perhaps even in a traumatic situation, so over a beer in a hotel my dad and I decided to buy every dog tag we could find," he said. "I just would think if somebody would find one of my dog tags from Iraq they'd give it back to me. It means something, especially 30, 40, 50 years later."

The father and son have made two trips to Vietnam over the last three years and collected 87 dog tags in all.

"We got the dog tags, because we wanted to get them out of the souvenir market and because we wanted to try to return them to their rightful owners," Bill Dekryger said.

It hasn't been easy, but to date, they've found four of the owners and reunited them with their dog tags at no cost. Those veterans live in Arizona, Minnesota, Virginia and now Tennessee.

"We've received letters from one of the gentlemen describing how emotional it was to get them back, so it really makes you feel good," Tim said. "It's really neat and once again, it kind of proves our hunch that this would actually mean something to the individual getting it back."

They know three of the other owners were killed in action. That leaves 80 remaining dog tags listed on www.dogtagscomehome.com that are still unaccounted for.

When the father and son contacted Pate, he found it hard to believe at first.

"I thought this is a scam," Pate said. "That's the first thing I thought."

But once he took a closer look he knew.

"It's got my name, it's got my blood type, it's also got my branch of the service and also that I was a Baptist," Pate said. "I am pretty sure that this is mine. Just to think after 40 some years they found that."

It certainly feels like it's weathered Pate's war story. It's gritty and rough and looks the part too.

"Looks like it's got some red clay in there," Pate said as he held the tag with his hook. "Que Son was an area where there was a lot of red clay."

It's a welcome surprise for the Marine.

"All of these 87 dog tags and I'm one of them?" Pate said. "That's pretty rare."

Something else that Pate knows is pretty rare? Good-hearted people who go out of their way to help others, especially those risked their lives for the rest of us.

"I'm appreciative that these two men are willing to do this and willing to get these back in the hands of people," Pate said.

Copyright WJHL 2014. All rights reserved.

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