MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
It is a story of distant travels, perseverance and time, but one more name has made it home from Vietnam: John Crazy Bear. The three-war veteran and retired gunnery sergeant was reunited with the dog tag he lost during the Vietnam War in a ceremony held aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, March 17.
Crazy Bear, a Lakota Sioux Native American who was orphaned as a child, enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of 14. He hitchhiked more than 400 miles to join a service he admits he knew almost nothing about.
“One of the biggest mistakes I made really paid off,” said Crazy Bear, remembering the circumstances that began his 22-year career as a Marine. “That was the proudest moment of my life when I was called a Marine. I was called a lot of things before that, but Marine meant more than anything.”
Crazy Bear enlisted in 1945 after lying about his age. He began his career in World War II, went on to endure the biting cold of the “Frozen Chosin” in Korea, where he received a Purple Heart, and served in Vietnam. On his 81st birthday, he watched the morning colors rise above MCB Camp Lejeune, unaware that only minutes later he would be reunited with a piece of his past.
It was a moment made possible by a humanitarian mission to Vietnam in the 1990s. Ray Milligan, a former Force Recon Marine, collected several hundred dog tags while working with a medical mission designed to help children in third-world countries. Milligan, bothered by the fact that American dog tags were being sold as souvenirs in the streets of Vietnam, purchased the tags in the hopes of returning them to the U.S.
Over the years, Milligan and others worked to return as many of the dog tags as they could. They eventually handed the project over to the POW/MIA Awareness Committee of New Jersey. The committee teamed up with members of the Nam Knights of America motorcycle club, who brought Crazy Bear’s dog tag to MCB Camp Lejeune.
On March 15, members of the Nam Knights embarked on one last mission with Crazy Bear’s tag and traveled 500 miles to return it to Crazy Bear’s chest, once more within reach of the heartbeat that kissed it during his many years of service.
Sixty-seven years after joining the Marine Corps, Crazy Bear’s eyes welled with tears and his knees shook as he embraced his long lost dog tag, home at last from a land thousands of miles away.
“I want to thank you for your service,” said Brit Henderson, a member of the Delaware Chapter of the Nam Knights, as he extended his arms towards Crazy Bear, his voice heavy with emotion. “Welcome home and god bless you.”
Crazy Bear stood at the front of the room, surrounded by his family, members of the Nam Knights, and his fellow Marines. It was a small homecoming ceremony to be sure, but a symbol for something far greater.
“I want to thank you all again,” said Crazy Bear. “This has been a real honor and I never expected it. I don’t know if you saw the tears in my eyes. I’m just overjoyed and still proud that my fellow Marines would respect me and invite me out to something like this.”
Crazy bear put the dog tag around his neck and ran his fingers over its worn surface. He could not remember how he lost the tag, but said it was unlike the dog tags made during the Vietnam War. His was older. It had a small notch on the tip and its lettering was severely weathered.
But Crazy Bear could still make out the tag’s information: His service number, his blood type, even his religious preference. The small strands of information designed to identify each service member and possibly even save their lives.
“It looks like it’s been through heck and high water,” exclaimed Crazy Bear. “But I think I’d rather have it than a Navy Cross.”