LEWISTON — A discovery in a Ho Chi Minh City antique shop left John Gagnon feeling both sad and patriotic.
In a wicker basket, the Lewiston postal worker found a corroded jumble of soldiers’ dog tags, 40-year-old rusting relics of the American G.I.s who served in Vietnam.
Gagnon examined each one, slowly picking the few that had decipherable names and numbers.
At least some were worn by men who probably died in battle, he figured. And nobody there, in the city once known as Saigon, had a right to them.
“These need to go back to America,” he said to himself. “They don’t belong in a trinket shop.”
So he bought the ones he could read, 10 in all.
In mid-March, as he recuperated from the 21-hour flight home, he began searching for their rightful owners.
All he had was the information on the tags, usually including their names, blood type and religion. They also had either a military serial number or Social Security number.
Gagnon began at his computer, first searching the 58,261 names of fallen soldiers on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. One of his names, George Palermo, was there.
“He was a 25-year-old sergeant killed in hostile fire,” said Gagnon, who has tried to locate Palermo’s family in the Boston area. “I’d like to give them his dog tag. I’d happily drive to Boston.”
Sitting in his living room, Gagnon talked about his effort with a kind of earnestness. Again and again, he used the word “patriotism.”
“I’m doing this as a way of saying ‘thank you,’” he said.
Using free Internet searches, he found Ellis Kelly in a VA hospital in Tennessee. The man is unable to speak on the telephone, but Gagnon sent the dog tag to his wife.
He also found Maj. Gen. John Peppers on the Internet, confirming his identity with the VA in Iowa.
The general hasn’t received the dog tag, yet. Instead, Gagnon sent it to the VA director in that state, who is planning a surprise presentation to Peppers.
Gagnon has also located another soldier
Already, Gagnon thinks he has also located another veteran, Charles Simmons, in Tennessee, but he is working to confirm the information before he approaches the family.
“I don’t want to make a cold call to someone about this,” he said. Not that he has had a bad experience, yet.
He was particularly touched by a conversation with Phillip Mercieca, a veteran who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. So far, he’s the only one of the 10 that Gagnon has spoken with directly.
Mercieca told Gagnon how he’d lost a dog tag in the jungle near the Vietnamese border with Laos.
It must have fallen from his boot, Mercieca said.
The two talked about the differences in Vietnam in four decades, comparing Mercieca’s wartime memories to Gagnon’s visits with his Vietnamese wife, Tu, to her hometown in the southwestern city of Rach Gia.
And Gagnon thanked Mercieca for his service.
“Nobody thanked him before,” Gagnon said.
He later received an e-mail from the man.
“My heart just melted,” Mercieca wrote when he received the dog tag in an Express Mail envelope.
That’s how the postman sent each one, lest the precious cargo get lost or stolen.
“I know I can count on the Postal Service,” Gagnon said.