“It was a shocker,” Marine Tom Bracken said of the rusty and dirty dog tag bearing his name and military identification number that arrived at his West Plymouth home this summer. “After 41 years I’d pretty much written it off.”
The small pieces of shrapnel in his left leg give Tom Bracken daily reminders of his tours of duty in Vietnam.
The small piece of metal that recently arrived from Vietnam by way of a military forensics lab gave Bracken a more pleasant reminder.
“It was a shocker,” Bracken said of the rusty and dirty dog tag bearing his name and military identification number that arrived at his West Plymouth home this summer. “After 41 years I’d pretty much written it off.”
Bracken, a South Boston native, served three tours of duty in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps. A sergeant, he served with the elite 1st Force Reconnaissance Co., the Marine Corps’ special forces branch, from 1967 to 1969.
Like many servicemen, Bracken kept one of his two government-issue dog tags hanging around his neck. The other he tied to his bootlaces.
A scout whose platoon would typically spent a week at a stretch on patrol in the jungle, Bracken won several medals and commendations for his service. He was credited with saving his platoon by jumping into a streambed and wiping out enemy soldiers advancing on an unprotected flank.
Ironically, it was during the Tet offensive of 1968 that Bracken lost one of his dog tags. Accustomed to fighting in the jungle, Bracken and his platoon were recruited to join the battle for Hue City. Toward the end of the three-week battle, Bracken remembers running through the back of hut when the rawhide necklace holding the dog tag around his neck snagged on the top of the doorframe.
The Marine behind him pushed him through the doorway and the rawhide snapped, sending the dog tag flying.
Bracken did not stop to look. He knew he still had one dog tag attached to his boot in case he fell in action.
He survived the battle to recapture Hue and was in his third 13-month tour when he was hit in the left leg by shrapnel during shelling in Phu Bai. Doctors patched Bracken up and sent him back into the field, but the knee kept giving out on him. He was finally airlifted from the field and ultimately back to the United States for the first of several surgeries.
Bracken settled in West Plymouth with his his wife, Patricia, 36 years ago.
The couple has three daughters, Kristen, Karyn and Kerry.
Kristen, the oldest, said her father never talked much about his military exploits while the girls were growing up, but seems to be opening up in recent year about his experiences in Vietnam. It may have started with the arrival of another package of war medals from the Marine Corps several years ago.
The government claimed they lost many of Bracken’s records in a fire, but knew he earned the medals and commendations. A letter from the group working to recover servicemen missing in action in Vietnam first alerted Bracken to the discovery of his dog tag two years ago.
It was among 68 dog tags anonymously donated to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s central identification laboratory in Hawaii in 2007. The lab established the tags were legitimate earlier this year and sent them by special delivery to Bracken.
The dog tag was slightly bent, slightly rusted and slightly encrusted with dirt.
It is otherwise a perfect match for the shiny one Bracken took off his boots when he left Vietnam and now displays proudly on his key ring. Bracken is still not sure what he’ll do with the long, lost dog tag. For now, he keeps it wrapped in plastic. Someday, he expects, he will give it to his grandson as a memento of how his grandfather spent his late teens.
“Man, 41 years later,” Bracken said. “I just wrote it off as something I was never going to see again.”