58,000 replica dog tags honor fallen Vietnam War veterans at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. Photo by Lucas Carter/The American Legion.

58,000 dog tags honor Vietnam War dead

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Corrine King paused to soak in “Above and Beyond,” an art exhibit featuring more than 58,000 dog tags — one for each American killed in the Vietnam War. Each dog tag lists a servicemember’s name, military branch and date of death.

The 410-square-foot dog tag exhibit greets visitors from above the escalator at the Harold Washington Chicago Public Library, 400 S. State St., now through April 2020. It is the only memorial other than The Wall in Washington, D.C., that lists every individual killed in Vietnam.

“With the monument in Washington, D.C., it’s black and reflective, of course, and is on the ground,” said King, who is studying at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. “The sense that you get is that the military is supporting or holding up the nation. With this one, it’s hanging above us so you can feel the weight of it with the dog tags coming down. You feel the pressure on the country of the promises we made when they enlisted. It makes you think, ‘Did we take care of their families, are we making sure their kids are taken care of?'”

King also pointed out a single black dog tag that represents those whose deaths have not been confirmed by the Department of Defense (DoD) but are linked to service in Vietnam. For example, those who have diseases related to Agent Orange exposure.

“For the veterans who are alive, are we taking care of them with the best services possible?” wondered King, whose family lineage includes a great-grandfather who was in the Navy during World War II and a grandfather who served around the time of Vietnam.

“Above and Beyond” is from the National Veterans Art Museum, also located in Chicago. The exhibit went on display at the library on Feb. 20 after being taken out of public view for about four years due to space limitations at the museum, executive director Brendan Foster said.

When Foster joined the museum about a year ago, he quickly learned how important the dog tag artwork is to visitors.

“One thing that I noticed right when I started was the amount of inquiries we got and the impact that this piece had on previous visitors and veterans who were just inquiring,” he recalled. “We fielded about 10 calls a day —‘Where are the dog tags?’ Almost everyone who came to visit the museum asked about the dog tags.”

Foster made it a priority to return “Above and Beyond” to public view. The library seems like an ideal fit. “It allows an opportunity for people to see it from every angle,” he said. “It’s also a quiet space where people can reflect and learn through the kiosk about their loved ones and the impact of Vietnam.”

A multimedia kiosk allows visitors to search — by name or hometown — of those memorialized in the exhibit. Information includes full names, dates of death, hometowns and — in most cases — a photograph. “It has a massive impact on people who are coming to actually look up loved ones, neighbors, family, friends and when they see that photo of their neighbor or loved one, it’s a very powerful moment for them. They are very thankful,” Foster said.“Above and Beyond” was created by veteran artists Rick Steinbock, Ned Broderick, Joe Fornelli and Mike Helbing. It was originally dedicated on May 26, 2001, after a two-year period in which every dog tag was stamped by hand using a former military Graphotype machine.

Just like The Wall in Washington, the dog tag exhibit adds names each year as verified by DoD. “We actually also create new dog tags with the original machine that we used to create dog tags because we wanted to respect the integrity and vision of the artist, but also respect the dignity of the fallen,” Foster said.

Visitors stop by the exhibit for various reasons, but all leave with a deeper understanding of the impact of the Vietnam War.

“Ultimately I think that our mission is to demonstrate and show the impact of combat through art,” Foster said. “This is 58,000 dog tags. How can you really not understand the impact that had on our nation during that time? It’s a place to honor, respect, reflect and to learn.”

John Davis, whose father was a veteran and Legionnaire, stopped by the exhibit while visiting Chicago.

“It’s very moving, It makes you reflect. It’s somber. I am old enough to remember the Vietnam War while many people today don’t — it’s just history to them. But it’s very solemn, having lived through the war.”

The exhibit touches those who pause to stop and learn or remember.

"It's impressive. Very moving," said library patron Mary Phillips as she dabbed her eye and walked away.