A Vietnam veteran in Brookline, New Hampshire, was reunited Thursday with a military dog tag he lost during his service in combat in 1969.
"I just can't get over it," Army veteran Don Winterhalter said after receiving his long-lost military ID. "I think it's wonderful."
Winterhalter said that back in 1969, he did not think much about losing the tag, because he had a new one reissued due to a mistake with his blood type on the first ID.
However, the original tag is now an important symbol of his service to Winterhalter, he said.
The return of the ID to the veteran was made possible through the Georgia, Vermont, nonprofit Purple Hearts Reunited.
The organization was started in 2012 by Zac Fike, a Captain in the Vermont Army National Guard. It researches misplaced, stolen, or sold military medals and select artifacts, working free to find the families of the original owners, or, when possible, the original owners themselves.
"If you find something that belongs to someone, you should return it," observed Dinh Vu of Williston, Vermont, whose relatives found Winterhalter's military ID several decades ago outside of Saigon, in Vietnam.
Vu told necn that after the war, a family business sometimes salvaged discarded military gear and converted it into backpacks and suitcases. The tag was in some of that material, Vu said.
Knowing the dog tag was more meaningful than most salvaged clothing and textiles it handled, the bag company kept it for many years, Vu said, and eventually sent it back with Vu to his home in Vermont, hoping he could somehow track down its original owner.
"I didn't know where to start," Vu said, describing how he likely would not have been able to find Winterhalter without the work of Purple Hearts Reunited.
Vu explained a neighbor helped connect him to Zac Fike, who took on the task of researching the dog tag. The pair was surprised to learn Winterhalter was living in southern New Hampshire, Vu said, just a few hours from the Vermont town where the dog tag ended up.
Thursday, two members of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association traveled to Brookline on behalf of Purple Hearts Reunited to deliver the rediscovered dog tag.
"For a lot of years, I had put Vietnam behind me and I hadn't thought about it," Winterhalter said. "And all of a sudden, it all came flooding back [after hearing of the discovered dog tag]. Then with this unique and amazing story--I thought it was really cool."
Winterhalter called the tag a priceless reminder of his military service, and thanked Purple Hearts Reunited for getting it back for him.
"Back when I was in the service, coming home from Vietnam, we weren't treated as [service members] are today," Winterhalter recalled. "And so it was something you kind of put aside. But now, 45 years later, I've gotten over that. And it's pretty amazing [to see the dog tag again]. I really appreciate it."
"To me, that's 'mission accomplished,'" Dinh Vu added.
The Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association members who returned Winterhalter's dog tag said they want to see many more such missions accomplished, noting when service members move, get sick, or die, records of their military service often do get lost.
"I encourage people, If you should ever find a medal of valor, contact Purple Hearts Reunited," recommended Don Edwards of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association chapter serving the Burlington, Vermont area.
As for Don Winterhalter, he promised to not let his old dog tag slip through his fingers again. "It'll stay in our family," he said, chuckling.
For more information on Purple Hearts Reunited, or to support the nonprofit's mission, visit its website.