Family gets Vietnam dog tag after 49 years

POINT LOOKOUT, MO. — Vietnam Veteran Sgt. Maj. Eddie Neas (USMCR/Retired) traveled back to Vietnam in March 2016 as part of the College of the Ozarks Patriotic Education Travel Program – only to discover a single dog tag at Khe Sanh. Forty-nine years after it was lost, Neas delivered the dog tag to the family of the fallen.

In a ceremony on August 8 in Magnolia, Texas, Neas presented the dog tag to the brother of Vietnam Veteran Lance Cpl. David Bruce Freed who was killed in action Sept. 19, 1968.

Neas knew returning to the battlefields where he fought wasn’t going to be easy, but he was willing to go because he knew sharing his story with the next generation was important. Paired with College of the Ozarks student Grant Talburt, along with 11 other Veterans and 11 students, the group traversed cities like Can Tho, Saigon, Cu Chi, Da Nang, Hue City, Dong Ha, and Hanoi, learning firsthand what the Vietnam War was really like.

While in Khe Sanh, Neas made a discovery that was the start of, in his own words, “a life-changing quest.”

Neas tells the story with a preciseness that demonstrates the importance of the moment – vividly recalling his interaction with a Vietnamese street peddler outside a museum. He says he observed a variety of items on the peddler’s tray and something special caught his eye.

“I saw many interesting artifacts on this tray. Things like pieces of shrapnel, bullet shell casings, and even the Red Star the North Vietnamese Army wore on their helmets, but I noticed a single USMC dog tag on his tray. I knew I had to bring it back home.”

After deeming it ‘the real thing’ and bartering with the peddler, Neas purchased the dog tag for approximately 568,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong), which is equivalent to about $25 U.S. dollars.

And it was then that the story of Lance Cpl. David Bruce Freed began to unfold.

Neas would spend the next 17 months chasing leads for the location of Lance Cpl. Freed’s family. He would first make the startling discovery that Freed grew up in Montclair, New Jersey – a mere 20 miles from Neas’ current home town of Rahway, New Jersey. A fact that only propelled Neas’ investigation as he imagined this fellow young Marine, just down the road, heading off to Vietnam almost at the same time he did.

Neas spoke to Veterans groups, sharing the story of his trip of a lifetime through the College of the Ozarks Patriotic Education Travel Program and always ended with the story of the dog tag that he had hanging around his neck, next to his. He remained hopeful that his efforts would lead him to Freed’s family.

Neas was speaking at a Marine Corps League Mess Night event in Connecticut when a Marine named Ray Baldwin, who was sitting next to him, said he would share this story with a friend who loved to conduct research. Two days later, he was given a lead on four family members living out of state. After receiving no response from his inquiries, Neas began to wonder if he would ever be able to return the dog tag he had found – would he ever catch a break and find closure on this important quest?

And then one day, he did.

Neas, as a final effort, contacted the Police Department in Magnolia, Texas – where Lance Cpl. Freed’s family might live based off a tip he had received.

With the help of the Chief of Police Terry Enloe, they found and identified some of Freed’s siblings. The chief of police connected with the brother of Freed, Brian Dale Freed. Arrangements were then made for Neas and Brian Freed to meet.

“This is incredible,” Neas said. “I cannot even find the words. I was so worried about visiting old war memories from almost 50 years ago, but now I see the purpose in all of this…I am overwhelmed.”

Grant Talburt, the College of the Ozarks student who traveled back with Neas to Vietnam, reflects on the powerful impact the tag will have on the Freed family. “Neas’ determination and persistence has finally paid off. The tag now gives the Freed family something to hold onto,” Talburt said. “I am thankful to have been a part of this process – and thankful that College of the Ozarks made this possible.”

Neas and Talburt flew to Texas on August 8. Forty-nine years later and thousands of miles away from where it was lost, the dog tag was presented to Lance Corporal Freed’s family. During the ceremony, Neas shared that the dog tag didn’t belong in Vietnam. And, he knew he wasn’t meant to keep it either.  “And tonight I’m giving this tag to his brother – where it belongs,” Neas said as he choked back tears and handed over the tag.

Brian Freed and Neas embraced in an emotional hug following the presentation. Freed’s tears reflected the deep ache of missing his brother.

“It may have been 50 years ago, but I was only 10 years old and I didn’t get to know my older brother and I miss him still,” Freed said. “And this means more than Eddie will ever know.”

One of many unique programs at College of the Ozarks is the Patriotic Education Travel Program. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students to accompany veterans back to the battlefields where they served. The program’s mission is to educate students about the sacrifices of American soldiers, so that their stories will never be forgotten. Travel destinations have included England, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany to visit sites from D-Day, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge, as well as Japan, the Philippines, Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, and the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Theatre. A special Holocaust trip took students, veterans, and Holocaust survivors to Germany, Poland, Austria, the Slovak Republic, and the Czech Republic. Other trips have included China, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Korea, and most recently, Vietnam.