Lanny Martinson was a 23-year-old Marine sergeant in Vietnam when he last held his dog tags. In the 45 years since, he thought they were gone forever, lost in the mad rush to save his life after he and other Marines walked into a minefield.
He'll soon be getting one of those dog tags back, after a network of people worked together to find the tag's owner. When they contacted him, Martinson was just at the point of filing papers to request new dog tags, all these years later.
Describing how he felt when he realized his tag had been found, and that he could have it back, Martinson tells John Wilkens of U-T San Diego that he was overwhelmed.
"It's like I left a part of me over there and somehow it's made its way back to me from a dark place," he says.
Martinson's story has brought him a burst of fame, both among veterans' communities online and in his hometown newspaper. The Lake County News-Chronicle of Two Harbors, Minn., did a feature story on him, and the struggles his family faced after he was wounded.
When asked what happened to his dog tags, Martinson tells the News-Chronicle that he would answer that he had no idea — "(At the time I lost them) I was in a lot of pain and on morphine, so I wasn't too sharp," he says.
A couple of years ago, the long-lost dog tag was discovered in the undergrowth where an airstrip had once been. That was in Khe Sanh, where Martinson had fought in a battle that raged for months. And it's where on June 4, 1968, he stepped on a landmine that destroyed his right leg. Martinson came home from the war in a wheelchair, not sure where his tags had wound up.
That famous battle is what led Australian John Naismith to visit Khe Sanh. While walking around the former airstrip, he spotted the glinting metal of the dog tag, and picked it up. The tag had Martinson's last name on it, along with a few other personal details, such as his branch of the service and his religion.
Like many soldiers, Martinson wore one tag around his neck, and the other in his bootlaces. Naismith reportedly found the tag that had been on Martinson's boot.
Naismith eventually gave the tag to motorcycle shop owner Charlie Fagan of Glendora, Calif., Wilkens reports. Then it made its way to Tanna Toney-Ferris, who had twice returned dog tags to service members in the seven years before she learned about Martinson's tags.
Toney-Ferris spread the word on veterans' websites and social media, and eventually, Bob "Sparky" Sparks of Florida helped find Martinson, after a photo of the tag that he posted on Facebook was widely shared. Eventually, they got in touch with Martinson, who now lives in Sugar Land, Texas.
Martinson has acknowledged that he struggled with post-traumatic stress after Vietnam, in an era when many veterans were left to find their own ways of coping with returning to society from war. He tells the News-Chronicle that writing about his experience helped. And he'd been thinking about his dog tags again recently, after his daughter asked about them.
"I can't tell you how much this means to me," Martinson said in an email to Sparks after being contacted with the news that his tag had been found, according to Wilkens.
"It brings it all back again, the men I lost, whose names are on the Wall, and the wounded that are now like me. I am trying to write this with tears running down my cheeks."
On his Facebook page, Martinson says he didn't want to be singled out because of the dog tag:
"I want to share all this attention I am getting with all the Veterans of Viet Nam and all those that are now serving their country as we once did. I didn't do anything to deserve to be singled out, it just happened."
He also says the best part about his new fame is that he gets to hear from other Marines:
"There is no honor greater than what you have given me. To be recognized by all of you, indeed makes me feel humble," Martinson wrote yesterday. "I hope I am able to make you all proud. I earned the title Marine when I was 17 and I am proud to say that 51 years later I remain a Marine, and will until my last breath. ooh-rah I remain Semper Fidelis."
Martinson hasn't yet received the found dog tag; the details of its return are still being worked out.