Vietnam vet Thomas Lee Ryhner of Wisconsin displays his Air Force dog tag, the first returned by the UA VETS program.

Courtesy of Thomas Rhyner

A University of Arizona program to return military dog tags and other personal effects to Vietnam War veterans is helping to heal the wounds of a war that ended more than 40 years ago.

About a year into the effort, the UA’s Veterans Education and Transition Services (VETS) has returned the first of some 2,300 dog tags it obtained after taking over a program started by a veterans organization.

Vietnam vet Thomas Lee Ryhner of Shofield, Wisconsin, recently received one of his old tags from his Air Force service in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.

“I never realized I had left a dog tag in Vietnam until I received an email from the University of Arizona,” Rhyner, also a retired Army National Guard member, said in a UA news article. “I am very grateful to be reunited with my dog tag, as it brings back a lot of memories.”

Last summer, the UA’s Veterans Education and Transition Services department agreed to take over the personal effects program of Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans, an Arizona-based program started by Vietnam vet Jess DeVaney.

DeVaney, who served as a Marine Corps rifleman, regularly made visits to Vietnam and began collecting dog tags before starting the nonprofit Tours of Peace, which organized tours for vets to help them come to terms with their war experiences.

Amid scarce funding and a dwindling number of Vietnam vets able to take the tours, Tours of Peace dissolved last year, and the UA VETS office agreed to take over the dog-tag return program last summer.

The Tours of Peace program had returned 360 dog tags, along with some other personal effects, but it hadn’t sent any new queries since before 2000.

Duan Copeland, a UA student veteran, graduate assistant and leader of the VETS’ dog-tag program, said he was elated to get the program’s first response via an email from Rhyner.

“We finally had a potential hit,” Copeland said. “It’s been a long time for us, so to get a response from a letter we had sent was awesome.”

On May 22, Copeland and Cody Nicholls, the UA’s assistant dean of students for Military and Veteran Engagement, attended a benefit dinner honoring DeVaney for his decades of service and broke the news to him of the program’s first return.

Copeland said the tags of another Vietnam veteran, a Marine Corps vet from Walnut Creek, California, were recently identified after his son spotted his father’s name on the list of service members on the VETS website.

The UA team began by sending an initial 40 letters to veterans using addresses Tours of Peace members were able to identify and others the UA found. Last week, the team planned to send an additional 60 letters.

The tags initially were authenticated by a number of methods, including the use of military documents, military database data, information generated from official memorials and personal-identification documents.

Volunteers also have verified that a number of dog tags belong to service members who have died.

“With each passing year, more Vietnam veterans are passing away,” said Nicholls, a veteran of the Army Reserves and the Wyoming National Guard.

A number of UA staffers, students and student veterans have worked on the project, including Anna Williams, who served as the initial project coordinator and now works for the UA’s BIO5 Institute.

“At the VETS center, we push the idea of service and have found that a lot of our students still want to serve in some way — in this case, to those who came before us,” said Copeland, a UA graduate student studying applied biosciences and microbiology.

Staffers in the office of U.S. Sen. John McCain originally presented the program to the team.

Copeland says he hopes word of Rhyner’s match will encourage other veterans and their family members to come forward.

“When we send these letters, who knows if these people are still alive? But this work is meaningful,” Copeland said. “It’s a way for our students and employees to connect with someone from the past to say, ‘You are not forgotten. You are important.’”

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner