Family, War and Loss

Mar 16, 2018

Credit Jason Harper / Hays, Kansas

I’m Jason Harper from Hays, Kansas, for HPPR’s Radio Readers Spring Read commemorating the 100-year anniversary of WWI. I’m responding to A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton.

A Son at the Front is about a family and how a boy's parents try to use their social influence to keep their son from the front lines of the First World War. Yet the son secretly joins the infantry and his father's resultant intense reactions are central to the novel's development. 

This book had me thinking about my own family's military members. My father had served his time in the Marines years before the war in Vietnam began; my brother enlisted in the Army during the months leading up to the Gulf War in 1990; my nephew enlisted in the Marines prior to the Iraq War in 2003. My sister served in the Air Force, loading cargo onto C-141s, onboarding coffins immediately after the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, with its death toll of 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and 3 soldiers. 

I can only imagine what being a parent of a son or daughter at the front would be like. Anxiety and helplessness. My incomplete empathy is not enough. I can only continue to try to learn more, to think more. 

Three years ago I was traveling in Vietnam during a break from my work. Vietnam now is far different from what it was during the war there - yet in some ways very much the same. The Vietnamese people welcomed me everywhere I went during my six-week tour; my only duty was personal, reflective, curious. 

I had decided to rent a small flat in a small community for a considerable length of time and to simply observe whatever I could -- to see what I could see to try to make sense of any of it. 

One evening I was passing by a gated community and a security guard stopped me. I was not alarmed by being stopped; the guard had surly seen me walking by before. I recognized him, and my rented flat neighbored his. He was somewhere in his mid-fifties, I supposed, and wore a quiet, calm smile. He asked me if I could help him with something and I replied that I could try. The guard reached in his shirt pocket and fished out a single US military dog tag. "Can you help me find his family?"

I had an immediate flashback of seeing my father's dog tags when I was a kid. I remembered how I marveled over the embossed letters, numbers, words on the polished grey steel. Pop told me that military dog tags need to be worn in pairs on a beaded chain and hung around a soldier's neck. They display the last name with first-name initials, the service number, the branch of service, the soldier's blood type, and a religion, if any. Dog tags are issued in pairs because upon the death of the wearer, one of the tags needs to be removed from the chain and sent into an administrative branch. Also, the location of the body. The second dog tag stayed with the remains.

"Can you help me find his family?" the security guard asked again with audible desperation, holding out the metal rectangle. I read a last name and initials, what looked like a Social Security Number, US Army, blood type O POS (the same as mine), and "NO PREFERENCE" for religion. 

"Please..." the guard pleaded.

I replied that I could try. I reached into my pocket and retrieved my cell phone. "I'll send in a photo. US Consulate in Saigon. They will know what to do." 

He held out the single dog tag in his palm and I stood next to him, shoulder-to-shoulder, to better center the picture. We reviewed the photo together and nodded in unison. We said good night; I went back to my flat and attached the photo to a short email explaining what happened, including my location.

I got a reply to my email not too long later. It thanked me for my assistance and stated that they would include this photo among other information that they might find about this soldier. 

While I still haven't heard back from the Consulate after three years, I still hold some hope: I keep the photo saved on my cell phone, buried under thousands of other memories over the years. 

On a recent trip to Washington DC, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with my wife. We walked slowly along that sacred wall. I stopped and scrolled through my cellphone photos, searching all the way back to February 2015, looking for the picture of the dog tag. I remembered that the soldier and I share the same the blood type and religion, but I had forgotten his name. Still looking through the album, I remembered hearing the desperation in the security guard's voice. 

And when I finally found the photo of the dog tag with the soldier's name, I looked up at the long, black wall in front of me with its thousands and thousands of names...

...and my heart sank.

Vietnam Memorial in Washington D C
Credit Jason Harper / Hays, Kansas