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Veterans Day: Run through the jungle

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Dog tag returned to local veteran 47 years after he lost it in Vietnam

By Stephen Lega

Sam Epps spends a lot of time these days reading on his front porch. He enjoys Westerns and crime stories.
But Epps could tell some stories of his own. Many days, you can find him wearing his Army jacket, a reminder of his tour of duty in Vietnam and of the multiple firefights he survived.
“I didn’t pick none [fights], but I was in a few,” he said.
In September, Epps received another memento of his time in East Asia in the late 1960s — a dog tag that he lost in 1968 during a reconnaissance mission in the jungles of Vietnam.
Epps, 70, was born in Springfield, but moved to Lebanon while he was still in school.
“I was going to St. Charles [High] but they didn’t have football, so I moved where I could play,” he said.
He graduated from Lebanon High School, where he played split end for the Yellow Jackets.
And he was good, just ask him.
“They couldn’t catch me,” Epps said.
Not long after he graduated from high school, he was drafted into the Army. He joined on Oct. 23, 1967.
After completing his training at Ft. Knox and at Ft. Benning, Georgia, Epps was assigned to Germany. He made it clear that he wasn’t interested in going there. He let his superior officers know that he thought Germany would be too cold.
“They said, ‘You don’t want to go to Vietnam. They’re fighting.’ I said, ‘I don’t give d---. It’s warm,” Epps said.
And he got to find out exactly how warm.
“You’d wake up in the morning it’d be 100 degrees,” Epps said.
Before arriving in Asia, Epps completed infantry, airborne and reconnaissance training.
In Vietnam, Epps spent most of his time far from camp, often sleeping in the jungle with the rest of his unit. A few times they landed behind enemy lines.
“One time, they were d--- near on top of me,” he recalled.
And what does Epps recommend doing in that situation?
“You tried to blend into the ground,” he said
Epps and his unit spent most of their time in the jungle, spending days and nights there no matter the weather.
“It rained so hard. You put your hand in front of your face, and you couldn’t even see it,” he said.
Occasionally, a helicopter would drop a delivery of food and ammunition to them, and Epps said they would have to make it last until the next delivery came.
“Sometimes we’d go out and be out two or three months at a time,” he said. “I wasn’t at base camp too often.”
Epps and his unit scouted ahead and reported when and where they found Vietcong locations. Epps estimated that he lost his dog tags about six months into his tour of duty in Vietnam.
“In ‘68, it was real bad. That was the height of the whole war,” he said.
With time, Epps earned a promotion to sergeant and was put in charge of the unit. He said he remembered passing along one piece of advice to the 10 soldiers under his command.
“I tell you what, if you don’t listen to what I tell you, you’re going home dead. But I’m going home alive,” Epps recalled saying.
The hardest part was never knowing where they would find Vietcong. That meant Epps was involved in multiple firefights, and many of them were surprises. After one battle, he took advantage of a chance to upgrade his weapon, taking an AK-47 off an enemy’s soldier who had been killed.
“They had better equipment,” Epps said. “Most of their equipment came from Russia.”
The AK-47 could be used to shoot larger shells in addition to the ones the Army issued for the M16, according to Epps.
During one firefight, Epps got shot in the right leg, but he estimated he walked four or five miles before a helicopter picked him up.
“I got well enough and went back out. I wanted to see if my guys were all right,” he said. “I went back out and got shot again.”
That time, the doctors told Epps he couldn’t go out on patrol any more.
He recovered in hospitals in Japan and Alaska before returning to Kentucky. He was honorably discharged in October of 1969, but he continued to work at Ft. Knox for another eight years.

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Dog tags
A couple months ago, John “Quincy” Thomas saw a message on Facebook. A man from California, Bryan Marks, was trying to find a Samuel Epps from Lebanon, Kentucky.
Today, Marks makes trips to Vietnam, where he buys items at markets that belonged to American servicemen. Vietnamese citizens are still finding those items to this day, and they usually sell them for a few dollars each.
Thomas said that Marks used his own money to buy those items with one goal —returning them to the men who lost them during their service.
After confirming that Epps had served in Vietnam, Thomas arranged for Marks to mail the dog tag that he’d bought. When Thomas got it in the mail, he and Barney Tharp, another Vietnam veteran from Marion County, hand-delivered it to Epps.
Thomas read a short letter from Marks thanking Epps for his service. Tharp made his own personal statement, expressing his appreciation to Epps for everything he’d done during his military service.
Epps seemed surprised and happy to once again hold something he lost more than four decades ago.
“It meant a whole lot,” he said. “Ever since I lost them, I’ve been looking for them.”

Editor’s note: Marks did not return a call seeking comment. Thomas said that Marks did not want any attention for what he’s done. He wanted the veterans to be honored instead.