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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Veterans frustrated after Vet Center memorial vandalized, dog tags stolen

Dave Baird, Spokane Vet Center director, holds an example of dog tags that were stolen off this veterans memorial outside of the Spokane Vet Center.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A burglar stole several hundred dollars worth of goods from the Spokane Vet Center in Spokane Valley earlier this month. But the kicker for the veterans who use the facility was the dozens of dog tags swiped from a Vietnam War memorial on the center’s campus.

“Some of the guys, this is all they have, and this hurts really deep,” said Bill Allen, a Vietnam veteran who attends a weekly support group called Muddy Boots.

Some 30 dog tags hanging from the memorial at 13109 Mirabeau Parkway were taken at about 2 a.m. Feb. 10. Only the chains remained, said David Baird, the director of the Spokane Vet Center.

“I was spit on when I came back from Vietnam,” said Tom Evans, another Vietnam veteran with Muddy Boots. “It took me back to that.”

Baird said the dog tags are cheap aluminum “wafers” that don’t include any valuable information on them.

“I can’t imagine all of them put together would equal a dollar,” he said.

The burglar also stole propane heaters, parts of an upright heater, a wheel barrow from the Heroes Garden that is maintained by Gold Star families, and the license plates from vehicles parked in the center parking lot, Baird said.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office estimated the losses at about $750.

“I don’t understand why someone could be that hateful to go onto veterans’ property and do that,” Evans said. “What are the dog tags to them?”

The memorial includes the tail rotor of a “Cobra” attack helicopter used in Vietnam, along with three metal panels that were used to hold the dog tags.

“It was created for Vietnam veterans to do that, but they, as a group, opened it and invited other veterans to hang their dog tags as well,” Baird said.

Many of the dog tags were replicas that only included the veteran’s name, branch of service and the conflict they served in, Baird said.

“Almost all of them were duplicates we created, and of course we didn’t have any of that super private information on there,” he said.

Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to add their own dog tags, as well as a 90-year-old Korean War veteran who left his last set of original dog tags on the memorial, Baird said.

Only one set of tags was left after the burglary.

Veterans who travel to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., referred to as “the Wall,” often can’t find the names of their fallen comrades because they don’t know their full names, Baird said. The dog tags at the Spokane Vet Center allowed them to memorialize them with just a nickname, he said.

“Our friends, when they died, we kind of locked them up inside of us,” said Allen, who served in a Marine Corps reconnaissance battalion as a radio operator in Vietnam. “You had to numb yourself.”

Baird said there were plans to add a bronze POW/MIA table to the memorial, but he said he’s rethinking that now.

“I’m concerned that that would get lifted, too,” he said.

Surveillance footage at the Spokane Vet Center captured a single person on video. Baird suspects the burglar was attempting to gather scrap metal, based on the other items that were stolen.

He does not think the burglary was an attack specifically against veterans, but the incident is not the first of its kind, he said.

Burglars have hit the Spokane Vet Center in the past, taking umbrellas from the garden, sawing off catalytic converters from the vehicles that belong to the center and even draining fuel from the vehicles’ gas tanks, according to Baird.

“We’ve been here for 10 years and it has stepped up in the last two years,” Baird said.

The Spokane Vet Center was originally founded in 1982 as the Vietnam Veteran Center by veterans of the Vietnam War, but later expanded to include all veterans.

“Our main service is we work with combat veterans and their family members and helping them to readjust to civilian life after war,” said Baird, who retired from the Navy in 2009 after a career serving on submarines and as a Seabee.

Evans said Muddy Boots meets every Friday.

“We’re all combat vets. Some were in tanks, some were in helicopters. One of our guys was a pilot,” said Evans, who was drafted into an assault helicopter unit in 1968. “All of us getting together are able to talk about our experiences and how time kind of screws us up a bit. This group allows us to be grounded.”

Allen said the group is “like a family.”

The center also provides family counseling, couples therapy and even therapy for veterans who have suffered from sexual trauma, Baird said. The center also will host yoga classes, tai chi and Native American sweat lodges, he said.

It’s one of the busiest vet centers in the country and is on track to serve 20,000 veteran appointments this year, he said. But the center will be even busier replacing the stolen tags.

The Spokane Vet Center plans to double the number of dog tags at the memorial during its annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day, which includes a barbecue, held on March 31.

With help from a nearby Army recruiting center, veterans will be able to print out their dog tags on a machine during the event. The new tags will then be more securely attached to the memorial.

Those who cannot attend in person can reach out to the Spokane Vet Center to be included in the memorial, (509) 444-8387.

Family members of veterans who have died can also participate, Baird said.

“We’d love to get their dog tag hanging for them,” he said.