Michael Erthal, left, presents the shadowbox containing Terry Newkirk’s dogtags to his father, James. (Photo courtesy Michael Erthal)

A memory from overseas

James Newkirk, of Clearwater, Fla., has never forgotten the circumstances of his son’s return from the Vietnam War. Terry Newkirk was killed on Dec. 24, 1969 – Christmas Eve – in South Vietnam’s Quảng Trị province after a shell exploded beside him. His remains were returned to his parents in January 1970, but he had become separated from his dog tags in the explosion. “In a case like that, when they send the body home ... they make up a tag with just the name and the serial number,” Newkirk said. He noticed the loss when he saw his son for the last time in the funeral home: “I knew it was him, but there was no dog tag.”

That dog tag lay where it (and Terry) had fallen for more than 40 years, until a Vietnamese treasure-hunter found it with a metal detector in March 2011 and offered it for sale on eBay. The listing was noticed by a friend of Michael Erthal, a war buddy of Terry’s who was also injured that day.

Offended at the idea of one of his fellow soldier’s goods being sold as a sort of souvenir, Erthal got together with his brother, Jim, who works for the Army as a civilian in Alabama. Together, they contacted the seller in Vietnam; and after a few back-and-forths, obtained an agreement to have the dog tags shipped to Jim with only shipping due.

After receiving the dog tags, Jim constructed a shadowbox that presented the dog tags surrounded by replicas of other medals and awards; Newkirk already had Terry’s medals, sent to him by the Army. Jim sent the shadowbox to Michael, who in turn took it to Clearwater last fall and gave it to Newkirk.

Newkirk’s daughter-in-law has had a letter written by him translated into Vietnamese using an online program, and has sent it to the seller, but they have not heard back. Newkirk knows of somewhat similar situations in which people have publicized found items from soldiers, “just as a passionate thing – taking it upon themselves to get it back to the people remaining behind, like fathers and mothers, or sisters, brothers, whatever. Rather than selling them, they’re just trying to get them back to the people.”

The biggest impact this gift, and the story behind it, has had on Newkirk is “some closure,” he said. “To find a dog tag as small as that 40-some years later is kind of a miracle.”