A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

February 2001/March 2001

Above & Beyond

National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum Dog Tag Project

By Jim Belshaw

The dog tag is one of those universal memories of military service--perhaps the only universal one. Stamped out by the millions, the shape unchanging, the information laid out uniformly, five lines that comprised a life, a stainless steel biography.

Everyone had dog tags. Everyone wore them. Everyone knew in the back of their minds the ultimate purpose of the dog tag, even if they didn't want to spend too much time lingering on it. That the dog tag might one day evolve into an art form could not have been on anyone's list of applications, practical or otherwise.

But at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, the art forms grow out of a point of view that in many ways reflects the experience of the dog tag--unique, yet shared.

The dog tag itself has become the art form, one that speaks to remembrance.

Ricky Steinbock and Ned Broderick, the president of the museum, had been talking with representatives from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. All agreed it would be a good idea if the art museum could find a way to have a permanent display of the names of those on The Wall.

The question was how. The answer came when Steinbock walked by Broderick's desk one day.

"I saw his dog tag, and I thought, 'You know, that's one thing almost everybody kept, " Steinbock said. "It's the first thing you were issued in the military. If you were killed, it was the last thing taken away from you. Or you kept it on your key chain forever."

Steinbock mentioned the dog tag idea to Broderick. The museum president said he'd think it over. A week passed. Broderick thought they might put the dog tags in the museum atrium but hadn't settled on the logistics.

"We'll suspend them," Steinbock said.

When finished, Above & Beyond will be 10 feet wide and 40 feet long, each dog tag one inch apart, more than 58,000 of them, all displayed in chronological order as they are on The Wall. Each will have the name, branch of service, and date of casualty.

When visitors first enter the museum, the sound of wind chimes will draw their attention upward to the ceiling of the two-story atrium.

Steinbock has made 45,000 dog tags. Each week, two Marine veterans come to hang the dog tags.

"Stamping every tag--people think how boring. But it's not boring," Steinbock said. "Every tag is an individual guy. But I'm not doing this just for the guys who died. I'm doing it for the families. The individuals' suffering ended 30 years ago, but the families' suffering has gone on all these years. And this is a place where maybe they come and find some peace. As long as these dog tags are up there, they'll never be forgotten."

Broderick is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War; Steinbock, 50, is not a veteran.

"I've always had strong feelings for vets," he said. "My brother-in-law served in Vietnam, and he talked me out of enlisting. He said it wasn't a positive thing. He said if you're drafted, you go, but to enlist wasn't the right thing to do at that moment. I know what vets sacrificed. I've always had a great affection for them."

The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum houses more than 700 works of art created by 115 artists who participated in the Vietnam War. The collection began in 1981; the museum opened its doors at its present location in 1996.

The museum hopes to fund the Above & Beyond project through individual $25 donations. To date, it has secured 600 sponsors. Sponsors may choose to receive a duplicate dog tag as a memento at no extra cost.

"We've got to say thank you to the people who died," Steinbock said. "We've got to remember these people."

Further information may be obtained from the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, 1801 S. Indiana, Chicago, IL 60616; 312-326-0270; www.nvvam.org

   

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