Long Road Home: Stranger's effort reunites Vietnam vet's dog tag with his widow
More than 40 years after the Vietnam War ended, an Army veteran’s dog tag recently found in Vietnam has been returned to his Warwick family thanks to a stranger half way across the world.
It all started at the beginning of February when Rick Brittain, a stores, purchasing and logistics manager with New Britain Palm Oil and Ramu Agri Industries in Papua New Guinea, emailed the newspaper. He said he was taking a shot in the dark and proceeded to relate his tale.
Brittain wrote that he was on holiday in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam with his wife in December, and had purchased several American dog tags from various street vendors at about $8 each. He was now trying to track down the original owners of these dog tags with the hope of returning them.
“Everywhere you travel in Vietnam now, there are street vendors/stalls selling memorabilia from the war era, and as well as Zippo lighters, medals, bullets, ammo, there are always several dozen dog tags for sale. These are the genuine article, and as soon as you see them, you wonder about the history of the tag,” wrote Brittain.
“Was the owner killed in action, missing in action? Or did he just lose them? It was natural instinct to try to track down previous owners as soon as I saw the tags, but I didn’t actually look for them in the first place, it just happened every time we went out for a visit to another part of the country.”
A former serviceman of the Australian Army Royal Signal Corps from 1975 to 1981, Brittain said he was now trying to contact immediate family members to send them “a tangible reminder of his time serving his country.”
One of the dog tags he collected was for a man named Kevin P. Belanger. Through an internet search, Brittain found a July 2009 obituary for a Mr. Belanger on our newspaper’s website that he believed was a match.
Brittain had difficulty finding family members. He turned to social media but all of the Belangers he located were not of immediate relation to Kevin. He asked if a message could be placed in the newspaper to find those who knew Mr. Belanger and make arrangements for the tag’s return. He wasn’t looking for any remuneration.
“I’m not looking for kudos or the like, but maybe a picture of the recipient with the tag would go some small way to substantiating this task at hand,” wrote Brittain, who added that he had already found homes for three tags. “I still have ten tags here, and it’s getting harder to track down people that are willing to respond to my initial questions.”
No one in the news office was familiar with the Belanger family, so phone calls and internet searches began using the information contained in Kevin’s obituary. Eventually, utilizing Warwick’s voter record, his daughter Lori Belanger was located with an address, but no phone number was listed. The home was about two miles away from Beacon offices.
After a couple of unsuccessful visits when no one was home, Lori was found in her front yard on Super Bowl Sunday enjoying the day. Apprehensive at first, when told the story and shown a picture of the dog tag, she confirmed that Kevin was her father and that he was indeed a Vietnam veteran.
“I just can’t believe it, I don’t know what to say,” she said. “This is amazing news, I’m just shocked.”
Lori agreed to have the tag sent to our office. Brittain advised that the previous three tags sent from his location in Papua New Guinea took nearly seven weeks to arrive. Leery of the country’s postal service, he asked a friend traveling to Australia to mail the tag from there. It was sent on February 27, and during winter storm Stella the envelope arrived. Arrangements were then made for the tag’s return.
“Oh wow, and do you know I can still recite his service number,” said Kevin’s widow, Ruth, when she opened the letter and found the tag. “I’m blown away, just blown away. This has been over there since 1968, almost 50 years.”
Ruth met Kevin when she was 13 years-old and he was 14 at a dance at Bishop Hendricken on a Friday night where admission cost fifty cents. She said he was her first love.
“We went together, broke up, got back together again, broke up, went back together again,” she joked. “We got married, I was 19 going on 20 and he had just come home from Vietnam. He came home on April 22 of 1968, and we got married May 25.”
Ruth shared a photobook filled with pictures of Kevin’s year of service in Vietnam, and explained that he entered the Army as an E-3 Private First Class, and came back as an E-5 Sargent, serving as a tanker in the Big Red One Armored Division. He would sometimes talk about his service, and thought he was doing his duty. He suffered some shrapnel wounds in his back while there. She said he changed quite a bit as a person after the war, but as time went by he became “the guy she knew again.”
They purchased a house together in Warwick in 1972 for $18,000 and had three children.
“He remodelled every single room in that house on his own,” said Ruth. “There wasn’t a thing that Kevin couldn’t do. He taught himself how to repair televisions and VCRs, and did taxidermy on the side. He was just a really intelligent guy.”
Kevin was an automobile mechanic at S & H Service Station in Providence for more than 23 years before retiring. He died from cancer in 2009 at the age of 61.
Ruth plans to place the tag with the flag she was presented during Kevin’s funeral. She was very appreciative of Brittain’s efforts to return the tag to her family, as they have never found any others.
“What a nice man, it’s like getting a piece of Kevin back,” Ruth said. “Hopefully it will be passed down for generations.”