BISMARCK — After more than 50 years and 5,000 miles, a North Dakota Vietnam War veteran's ID tags recovered in Russia were finally returned to his family in Bismarck on Wednesday, Sept. 30.

North Dakota native Ronald Hepper volunteered for the Vietnam War draft in 1967 and served with the U.S. Army’s 196th Light Infantry Brigade. Hepper was in Vietnam for a few months when he lost his dog tags in an explosion from a hand grenade during combat on June 11, 1969.

Gov. Doug Burgum presented Hepper's long-lost ID tags to his widow, Ruth Hepper, and family at the North Dakota State Capitol Wednesday.

The family of North Dakota native and Vietnam War veteran Ronald Hepper accepted the long-lost dog tags at the Capitol building on Wednesday, Sept. 30. Special to The Forum.
The family of North Dakota native and Vietnam War veteran Ronald Hepper accepted the long-lost dog tags at the Capitol building on Wednesday, Sept. 30. Special to The Forum.

“We are eternally grateful for the courageous service and sacrifices made by Ron Hepper and all North Dakotans who proudly served their country in the Vietnam War, as well as their families, especially those whose loved ones never came home,” Burgum said in a statement. "While we wish we were able to return these tags to Ron himself, we are thankful for the opportunity and tremendous honor to present this keepsake to Ruth on behalf of a grateful state and nation.”

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The tags were found by an American citizen traveling in Moscow, Russia. The person purchased the tags from a street vendor and delivered them to the American Embassy in Moscow. It is unknown how Hepper's tags ended up in Russia, though Ruth Hepper said she believes they may have been discovered by a Russian soldier who served alongside the North Vietnamese during the war.

Ruth Hepper said her husband struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after the war and he sought help through a treatment program in South Dakota.

Ronald Hepper sustained severe injuries from the 1969 explosion, and he received a Purple Heart. He died in 2007 and is buried at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery in Mandan.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.