- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2001

ORLANDO, Fla. — Lance Cpl. Allan George Decker made the ultimate sacrifice during his 1968 tour of Vietnam, which is why two Florida businessmen were sickened earlier this year to find his Marine dog tags for sale in a back-alley market in Ho Chi Minh City.
Rob Stiff and Jim Gain made a second trip to Vietnam in May just to buy the tags, and hundreds of others. Upon returning to America, they set about trying to reunite soldiers and their families with the lost tags.
Yesterday, Cpl. Decker's dog tags were given to his mother in an Independence Day ceremony at the Orlando cemetery where he's buried.
"I'm just overwhelmed with it all," said Ruth Decker, who lives in Punta Gorda. "I just think, 'Wow, the way the Lord makes things work out.'"
Since the end of the war, Vietnamese field workers have found in their rice paddies all sorts of military debris: boots, helmets, badges, buttons, medals and dog tags.
Servicemen usually wore the tags, which listed a soldier's name, military identification number and blood type, around their necks, but in the field many put them in their boots so they wouldn't jingle.
Mr. Stiff and Mr. Gain weren't looking for war mementos when they traveled to Vietnam in January. They wanted to check the commercial climate for possible business ventures. But in a market not frequented by tourists, they found the dog tags dangling from a string.
"It was really eerie, and we were disgusted," said Mr. Stiff, 27.
Despite their revulsion, they left the tags there. But back home in America, they couldn't escape the memory.
"People asked, 'What if they're fake?'" Mr. Stiff said. "Well, our question was, 'What if they're real?'"
In May, they returned to Vietnam to buy all the American dog tags they could find. It took days to scour Ho Chi Minh City and sort through thousands of tags — some printed in Vietnamese, others destroyed or illegible — and returned home with about 640.
The total cost of the tags was $180. They sometimes paid less than 14 cents each.
Mr. Stiff and Mr. Gain transcribed what was printed on each the best they could, then complied a database of names and ID numbers to list on their Web site: www.founddogtags.com.
A dozen tags matched names listed on the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
"One day, Jim comes into my office and says, 'You won't believe this. We've got matches for the Wall,'" Mr. Stiff said.
One of the first names they uncovered was Cpl. Decker's. With the help of Rep. Ric Keller, Florida Republican, and the Defense Department they tracked Ruth Decker to Punta Gorda, Fla., and called her June 21.
"She was so full of joy," Mr. Stiff said.
Cpl. Decker began his Vietnam tour as a machine-gunner with the 2nd Battalion, 27th Regiment of the 3rd Marine Division on Feb. 16, 1968.
On Aug. 25, 1968, the 19-year-old Marine was killed in Quang Nam province, one of more than 58,000 Americans to die in Vietnam. He had lost his dog tags during his six months in Vietnam.
"Allan was killed on a Sunday, and we didn't receive the word until the following Thursday," said Ruth Decker. "My husband and I were just crushed."
"But the next day, we received a letter from his buddy," she said.
"He said that Allan believed in God very strongly, and He will take care of him. And that was my consolation right from the beginning."
During yesterday's ceremony, the Florida businessmen presented the dog tags to Cpl. Decker's mother and family members at Woodlawn Cemetery.
She laid flowers and flags on the graves of her son and her husband, who died in 1988.
"This is going to be a very special Fourth of July," Mr. Stiff said. "I'm truly learning what a patriot is. It's more than just fireworks now."

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