When a badly wounded Tommy Swearingen came home from the Vietnam War more than 50 years ago, another soldier’s dog tags came with him.
Swearingen, who served in the Marines, didn’t realize that the two rectangular pieces of aluminum wrapped in masking tape didn’t bear his name until March of last year, when he was going through keepsakes that his wife wanted to use for a display box.
Efforts to track down the Marine to whom the identification tags were issued, or his relatives, didn’t pan out. Nor did the National Museum of the Marine Corps want to hang onto the dog tags.
Now, 19 months after Swearingen’s discovery, the tags have a new, permanent home: the LBJ Presidential Library on the University of Texas campus, which will put them to hands-on use in educational programs.
“I don’t know how I ended up with them, but I’m glad they’re going to be taken care of and, in a way, laid down to rest,” Swearingen said.
The presidential library and museum is a fitting destination in more than one way. President Lyndon B. Johnson was tormented by the war even as he prosecuted it. Swearingen counts Johnson, whose legacy also includes promoting civil rights, voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid, as one of his favorite presidents for a simple reason: “Because I served under him.”
The 70-year-old veteran delivered the dog tags to the library last week. He wore a Marine Corps T-shirt, a Vietnam Veteran cap and a smile for the occasion. Amanda Melancon and Mallory Lineberger, education specialists with the library, were effusive in their appreciation, saying the donation would provide a hands-on experience with an artifact from the war for students ranging from prekindergarten through college, as well as for lifelong learners.
“Students come for field trips, and we have several classroom activities that we do here,” Lineberger said. “Normally, all of the objects are in our museum collection, and so it’s special for us to be able to have some objects that we can actually use in the classroom here and have students touch them and have kind of a tactile experience other than just seeing papers and images and listening to telephone conversations.”
Moreover, the dog tags represent an everyday person as opposed to the president, Melancon said. “Obviously, what we do here mainly represents the president,” she said. “So it’s really special to have the dog tags.”
Swearingen, who lives on 20 acres near Warda, a small town about 65 miles east of Austin between Giddings and La Grange, figures the dog tags wound up in his personal effects by mistake sometime after he was wounded on July 5, 1967.
Shrapnel from a North Vietnamese Army mortar blew out his left elbow and penetrated his knee, stomach, hip and feet during Operation Buffalo, a bloody but little-known battle in the northern part of South Vietnam. He underwent treatment and surgeries at a series of military hospitals for 11 months. With no elbow, his left arm swivels in unusual ways but remains functional.
Swearingen, who at times speaks of his wartime experience with a kind of wry detachment, summed up the injuries this way: “I ate a rocket for breakfast, and it’s hard to digest.”
Then as now, Marines typically wore one dog tag around the neck and one in a boot.
“The dog tags were on a boot string with masking tape around them, and when I picked them up, the tape fell off, and I saw it wasn’t my dog tags,” said Swearingen, recalling his discovery last year. A small key, likely for a footlocker, was also attached to the string. He gave the dog tags to the library as he found them, with the sting and key attached.
Swearingen had stored the items for decades in an old shaving kit. The dog tags were stamped in capital letters with a name he did not recognize, DA JONES, along with USMC (for United States Marine Corps), M (for male), A (for blood type), CHRISTIAN and a service number. As it turned out, Swearingen came back from Vietnam with only one of his own dog tags.
He contacted the American-Statesman for assistance in returning the tags to Jones or his relatives after reading an article in April of last year about “The Wall That Heals,” a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that was brought to the LBJ Presidential Library in conjunction with a conference on the war.
An official with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the nonprofit organization behind the replica and the full-size version in Washington, D.C., told the Statesman that the Jones in question apparently lives in Georgia, but efforts to contact him proved fruitless.
When a Statesman reporter mentioned the matter to Bill McRaven, a retired admiral who is the University of Texas System chancellor, he suggested that Swearingen donate the dog tags to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.
Museum officials said they would be glad to receive the tags, with the caveat that if they couldn’t track down information about the soldier to whom they were issued or otherwise find a use for them, they would dispose of the tags or return them. And so the dog tags were sent to the museum last October, a couple of weeks before Veterans Day. Months passed, and things hit a snag.
“DA Jones was not found in the Records database by his Service Number,” Gretchen Winterer, a curator at the museum, wrote in an email in August. “That means he is likely in there according to his Social Security number. Unfortunately, there are too many DA Jones in the database to research this.”
Winterer offered to return the dog tags or “properly dispose of them.”
Swearingen opted to take them back. In the meantime, officials at the LBJ library had expressed interest to the Statesman in using the dog tags in educational programs. The Statesman passed the suggestion along to Swearingen, who liked it.
Don Dorsey, president of the Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans, said it’s puzzling that the Marine Corps museum was unable to track down the soldier to whom the dog tags were issued.
“The number is the Marine’s number and nobody else’s, and there should be a listing of that number,” Dorsey said. “The military is a cluster foxtrot, and there are so many ways that things can get screwed up on the administrative side. Numbers can be printed wrong. I just never heard of it.”
All things considered, Swearingen and his wife, Lana, are pleased with the outcome.
“Something nice is going to be done with the dog tags,” she said. “It’s a good experience for him, and it brings him some closure.”