Fort Worth man helps get dog tags to vet's family

September 12, 2011 7:09:35 AM PDT
This is the tale of a classic American car, a set of dog tags and the power of a simple act of gratitude.

The story began in 1969 when William Michael Fitzgerald, fresh from a tough tour of duty in Vietnam, lost his dog tags in the trunk of his wife's 1968 Chevy Camaro.

And it ended Sunday with the dog tags back in the hands of his family, nine years to the day from when they buried him in Greenwood Cemetery.

"It's funny how sometimes your lives cross paths with people, and you don't know how it's going to turn out," said Susan Powell, Fitzgerald's widow.

This is how these paths crossed.

In 1977, Emerico Perez plunked down $350 to buy his first car, a `68 cream-color Camaro bought at a gas station off Interstate 30. He drove that car through the rest of his years at Arlington Heights High School, then his first year of college.

Then he moved on to another car, parking the Camaro until he figured out what to do with it.

Thirty years went by.

"Once in a while I would think about getting rid of it, but my wife always said, `If you get rid of it, you're going to regret it,"' he said. "So I never did."

Last year, he pulled it out of his back yard and took it to a friend, Oscar Lazarky, who owns Sound Works, a car audio and tint place that also restores cars.

Last fall, Lazarky called Perez and said he'd found a set of dog tags when he took off the rear quarter panel. Somehow they had fallen through a crack and landed in the interior of the car's body.

"I knew it was something special to someone," he said.

Perez had never heard of a William Fitzgerald. He had a feeling, based on the car's year, that Fitzgerald might have been a Vietnam veteran and that he would probably want the dog tags back. So he started searching.

The search turned out to be more difficult than he anticipated, so he enlisted the help of the Star-Telegram.

Perez couldn't be faulted for giving up on his quest to find Fitzgerald, given the time he'd spent to try to reunite a couple of pieces of metal with a man who served in the Army 43 years ago.

But that's not how Perez saw it.

He has a son, Sgt. Gabriel Perez, in the Marine Corps, a young man who has pulled two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan.

"To me, those dogs tags are a keepsake and a memento for life," he said. "They're not something you throw away. I wanted to give it to him personally and tell him I appreciate him serving our country."

Unfortunately, that conversation wouldn't happen. The Star-Telegram discovered that Fitzgerald died in 2002. Instead, the paper connected Perez with Fitzgerald's former wife, remarried and living in Atlanta.

She never knew that her husband had lost any dog tags but she knew the car well. It was her first car, too. They drove it to Fort Bragg, N.C., after they married in 1969.

A Paschal High School graduate, Fitzgerald enlisted in the Army in 1965. He was sent to Vietnam in 1967 as a member of the 101st Airborne Division. He earned a Purple Heart from shrapnel wounds and came back to the U.S. a year later, hesitant to share much about what had gone on.

"He didn't talk about it," his widow said. "It obviously affected him."

When she and their two children, Christopher Fitzgerald and Kelly Brooks Taylor, planned his memorial service, they took his feelings into account and didn't make much of his military service.

But Perez's gesture to their family gave them an unexpected opportunity to reflect again on his willingness to serve, even in an unpopular war.

"I think it's time to finally honor him," Powell said.

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