4 July 2001 From the neck of a patriotic soldier to the dark alleys of Ho Chi Minh City, the decades-lost dog tag of fallen Marine Cpl. Allan George Decker completed its journey Wednesday to the hands of his mother in Orlando.
During an emotional service at the graves of Decker and his veteran father at Woodlawn Memorial Park in west Orange County, a solitary piece of metal was ceremonially handed over to Decker's mother, who turned 76 on Wednesday.
"This goes beyond tags," said Rob Stiff, one of two Central Florida businessmen who made the discovery. "This is about people and love."
Ruth Decker, the soldier's mother, couldn't have agreed more. She now considers the two Orlando men part of the extended family that also includes her son's two Marine buddies who kept their pact to stay in touch with families should anything happen to any of them in battle.
"It was love that those two men were by my son's side when he died," said Decker of Punta Gorda. "And it was love that brought the dog tag home. Things like this can really bring family together." She pointed to Allan Decker's Bible and some underlined words to illustrate the point. The words read, "There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother." "Those two young men became family when they called me upon Allan's death, and now I have two more young men who I consider part of my family,
Three decades after Decker's death on patrol Aug. 25, 1968, Stiff of Ocoee and Jim Gain of Orange County discovered boxes of military dog tags on the streets of South Vietnam.
For Stiff, a local magician, and Gain, co-owner of an Orlando freight company, their bargain-hunting trip in Vietnam was to turn into a soul-searching voyage as they attempted to pair the rusty ID tags with unsuspecting family members back home. Beyond the rusty insignias were hundreds of families separated from their loved ones. "It was simple," Stiff said. "The tags belonged at home, not in Vietnam."
On a return visit to Ho Chi Minh City, the two men purchased more than 600 of the tags and began a painstaking mission of matching the tags to families. "They were being sold on the streets for six or seven for a dollar," Stiff said. "But to the families of the soldiers, they are priceless."
When the first match was of an Orlando soldier, Stiff said, "the hairs on the back of our arms stood on end." That sense of awe was compounded when they discovered that their business partner, Tom Murray, knew the family. "I live in Windermere, and my kids went to school with some of the Decker family," Murray said.
However, familiarity with the family didn't make the initial contact any easier. "The three of us just sat in the office staring at the tag and then staring at the phone," Gain said. "Saigon was scary, but nowhere near as scary as the prospect of making that call. It was a case of 'Oh, my goodness, what do we do from here?' " When they managed to gather the courage to make the call, there was a sense of skepticism on the part of the Decker family.
"We thought how could this be happening after 30-something years," said Gail Ring, Allan's sister and a teacher at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Wednesday's service may have been small, but the happiness of the family was immeasurable.
"This is a miracle. My whole life has been a miracle," said Ruth Decker. "I just hope that other families can find the kind of peace that I have felt today." The discovery of Decker's dog tag could be summed up as "serendipity and divine intervention," Stiff said.
"If you look in the dictionary under serendipity, the definition should actually read Allan George Decker," he said. Ruth Decker also believes in divine intervention. "God is good. He's a God of miracles," she said. "The Lord had his hand in this from the beginning. The fact that it has all happened on my birthday is just amazing."
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