Dog Tag of Medic Killed in Vietnam Returned to his Brother


 
 

Jonathan D. Silver | | Monday, December 22, 2008


ERIE, Pa. -- For the son of a pastor who considered fleeing to Canada because he objected to war, David F. Winder seemed an unlikely candidate to receive the nation's highest military recognition.

But earn the Medal of Honor he did following his May 1970 death in Vietnam. Pfc. Winder, an unarmed medic and Erie County native, was killed at age 23 while trying to aid wounded colleagues under heavy fire. His heroics inspired his fellow soldiers to mount a successful counterattack.

Now, 38 years later, the Winder family has been unexpectedly reunited with a long-lost memento from that battlefield: one of Pfc. Winder's dog tags.

During a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in June, volunteers with an Arizona-based Vietnam veterans organization stumbled upon one of the tags. They brought it home and determined it was bona fide.

Earlier this month, the group's president, Jess De-Vaney, presented the slim piece of metal -- light in the hand but freighted with the weight of history -- to Pfc. Winder's younger brother, Joseph Winder, 60, of Philadelphia.

Both of Mr. Winder's parents died this year and never knew of the discovery. But for Mr. Winder, the find dusted off old memories.

"It was 30-some years ago, and I already put that in the can and put it on the shelf somewhere. To bring it back up so soon after my father passed ... obviously very emotional, but all good," Mr. Winder said last week.

Pfc. Winder's story began in Edinboro, where he was born in 1946. By age 2 the family had moved to Allegheny County. Patriarch Calvin J. Winder, a minister, became a pastor at Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where he stayed for a decade.

Mr. Winder has few memories of that era but said he and David shared a room in their house on Elton Avenue.

In 1958, Dr. Winder took the family to Mansfield, Ohio. Eleven years later, David Winder was drafted and began his tour of duty in Vietnam in November 1969.

He entered the Army in Columbus, Ohio, and became a senior medical aidman with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division.

A pacifist by nature and upbringing, Pfc. Winder considered sitting out the war in Canada. But "he figured that wasn't the right thing to do," Mr. Winder said.

So he became an unarmed medic.

"He was about helping people," his brother said. "He didn't even carry a gun in Vietnam."

John Henyan, 60, of Cordova, Ill., who served in the same outfit as Pfc. Winder, recalled meeting the Medal of Honor recipient once and described him as a "decent" fellow.

Mr. Henyan said he knew other medics who were conscientious objectors and did not carry weapons. He recalled asking one to carry a gun but not fire it, though, both to hide the fact that the only unarmed guy was a medic and to have an extra weapon on hand.

"He came into the company and I knew of him," Mr. Henyan said of Pfc. Winder. "They figured if you lasted six months, they took you out of the field and hopefully there was a replacement because life expectency wasn't too long."

Pfc. Winder made it six months. Two or three days before his death, according to a notation on a veterans' Web site dedicated to his memory, he replaced another soldier as a command post medic.

By spring 1970, Mr. Winder had returned stateside from his own stint with the Army in Germany. He and his parents got a letter from David asking them to be home on a particular night in May. He had a furlough coming up and planned to call.

"We were literally sitting there waiting for the phone call when they came to tell us he was killed," Mr. Winder said.

Thousands of miles away on May 13, Pfc. Winder's company had come under fire from automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades by what his Medal of Honor citation called a "well-entrenched enemy force."

The intense fire wounded several soldiers and pinned down the unit.

Pfc. Winder mostly crawled over a football-field length of "open, bullet-swept terrain" to reach his comrades, but was wounded along the way. Despite his injuries, he managed to get to one soldier and treat him.

On his way to a second soldier, Pfc. Winder was wounded again and had to stop momentarily. But he pushed on, getting within 30 feet of the soldier when he was killed. Inspired by his gallantry, his unit rallied and won the skirmish.

"I knew he was a great guy. I don't think you'd expect anybody to do what he did -- or very few people, anyhow, to be so selfless," Mr. Winder said of his brother.

Somewhere in that rice paddy, Pfc. Winder became separated from his dog tag.

As Mr. DeVaney, a former Marine in Vietnam, explained, many soldiers wore one tag around their neck and the other in a boot so they wouldn't clink together and alert the enemy.

"It's something that we never thought of when his body came back -- does he have his dog tags?" Mr. Winder said.

But decades later, Mr. DeVaney, was thinking hard about it.

Scrounging in Vietnam

In 1998, he founded TOP Vietnam Veterans, a non-profit group in Tucson, Ariz. that promotes humanitarian projects in Vietnam, visits by veterans and their families, and the retrieval of veterans' personal effects from battlefields across the country -- including dog tags.

"You receive that dog tag, it's part of you," Mr. DeVaney said. "Our dog tags mean a lot to us."

He recalled being told by one military widow that her husband's dog tag was more important to her than the American flag draped over his coffin.

In June, Mr. DeVaney led a group to Vietnam. During a lull on the last day of the trip while in Ho Chi Minh City, the travelers used their free time to explore. When they returned, they handed Mr. DeVaney three bags of dog tags they had scrounged.

Mr. DeVaney isn't sure where they came from but guesses it was a popular marketplace. There, dog tags can be had for a price by those who know where to look.

Inside one of the bags was David Winder's tag. Slightly pitted and rusted, it contained his name, serial number, blood type and religion stamped into the metal.

No one knew at the time who Pfc. Winder was. But after some research in the U.S., they found out.

Mr. DeVaney said it was an emotional experience to know he held in his hands something that was probably worn by a Medal of Honor recipient at the moment of his death.

He placed the dog tag in a small velvet box and put that in turn inside a cardboard box. Mr. DeVaney began the process of reaching out to the family, and eventually a letter was sent to Joseph Winder.

"I thought it was a scam at first. I thought, 'Yeah, these guys are out there, we've got your tag and for $99.95 we'll bring it to you.' But nothing could have been farther from the truth," Mr. Winder said.

Several phone calls and e-mails later, Mr. DeVaney boarded a plane to hand-deliver the dog tag. He was not going to pass up the opportunity.

"It felt like it needed an escort," Mr. DeVaney said.

Mr. Winder is looking for an appropriate chain so he can wear his brother's dog tag around his neck.

"It was obviously an extraordinary situation he was in. If you knew him it really wasn't out of character for him to do that," Mr. Winder said. "He was just a great brother."

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached atjsilver@post-gazette.comor 412-263-1962.


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