At 19 years old, Jerry Don Harsson arrived to Khe Sanh, Quang Tri, Vietnam. His friends called him J.P. He came from Lonoke, Arkansas, a humble town of 2,000 named after a beautiful red oak tree that outlasted the lumber industry; “Loan Oak”. He landed in Quang Tri shortly before Christmas. A Baptist, he celebrated the birth of his Savior from the mountains of Vietnam. Then, a few weeks later, celebrated his own birthday. It would be his last.
6 weeks later, on February 28, 1969, barely 20 years old, JP stepped on a land mine. Private First Class Jerry Don Harsson of the US Marine Corp breathed his last.
Earlier that day, he had fastened a tag around his neck. Amidst the commotion, the tag was lost, probably blown off by the explosion.
45 years later, a young hill-tribe boy, wading in a river, stumbled upon a silver piece with English encrypted upon it. He, like Jerry, fastened it around his neck. He had a new necklace; a proud new addition to his tribal swagger.
Then, two years later, it caught the eye of his English teacher. After a meal, some beers, and a little sweet talk, the English teacher had a cultural artifact worth protecting. He fastened it around his neck, perhaps a subtle statement of nonconformity.
That same month, an American moved to Khe Sanh, Vietnam. He would be the first American to call Quang Tri home since 1969, the same year JP was killed. The English teacher and the American quickly became friends. After a few meals, some beers, and a lot of sweet talk, JP’s tag is one step closer to its original owner. Fastened around my neck, I look forward to returning it to its owner in a few months.
The serendipitous tale of the life of a dog tag is remarkable. But there are better stories, filled with heroes and sacrifice, joy and tragedy, life and death, that I so often forget. Today let us remember the story of Jerry Don Harsson, a martyr worth celebrating.
Today, let us remember all of these heroes. The men and women that selflessly laid down their lives in order to protect the freedom and justice we so cherish. These are the stories worth telling, the heroes worth praising, the lives worth celebrating. Today, if you see a veteran or active service member, tell him or her that they are a hero.