What's on your dog tag?

By Lt. Col. David S. Bowerman, Chaplain, U.S. Army Public Health CommandApril 1, 2014

dog tag
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

What do you want others to know about you? What if you had to limit that information to only four lines?

Anyone who has served for any length of time in the military is familiar with those metal ovals worn on a chain around the neck. Officially they are identification tags but almost everyone calls them dog tags. Dog tags have their origin in the Civil War, but only unofficially. Soldiers at that time would often write basic information about themselves on a piece of paper and pin it to their uniform in case they were killed or badly injured. Some units paid for more durable identification. But there was no standardization as to what was included. Today's identification tags identify vital information about the wearer: name, Social Security number, blood type and religious preference.

During World War II there were only three religious categories that could be put on dog tags: P for Protestant, C for Catholic and H for Hebrew (Jewish). Obviously, that proved to be too limiting. "No Religious Preference" and "None" were eventually added; today many faith groups and broad denominations are available, reflecting the diversity of the armed forces. Service members can generally put whatever religious preference they want on their tags, including "Atheist" or "Agnostic." Some even ask for "Jedi" or "Druid." There is no list of official or approved religions--after all, that would constitute government endorsement of a particular religion. But what to put down as a religious preference is serious business, because spirituality is important.

Spirituality is not just a belief in a higher power, but includes beliefs, ethics and values, even a sense of what is fair. Sometimes people say something like, "I'm not religious, but I'm a spiritual person." Spirituality is not limited to a Christian who goes to church every Sunday, a Muslim who prays five times a day while facing Mecca, or a Jew who keeps a kosher kitchen. It's not just the practice of prayer or meditation. "Why am I here?" "What is my purpose in life?" Why is there evil and suffering in the world?" Even atheism and agnosticism are beliefs, and belief matters.

The problem is that some people don't understand how important spirituality is to the whole person. Our outlook and world view affect everything we do, including how we treat others. According to Army Regulation 600-63 (Army Health Promotion), "When a person's actions are different from his or her stated values, the person lives with inner conflict." Claiming "No Religious Preference" is unclear--are you an atheist or agnostic, or a Christian who does not affiliate with any particular denomination?

There are many resources available to explore one's spirituality. One place to begin is the Army Public Health Command Web site, http://phc.amedd.army.mil/topics/healthyliving/bh/Pages/SpiritualHealth.aspx, which contains many resources such as the Spiritual Fitness Inventory and the Boosting Resilience through Spirituality brochure.

Other good resources can be found at http://csf2.army.mil/fivedimensions.html and http://www.spiritfit.army.mil/Home.aspx.

So, what's on your dog tag?

Related Links:

Compehensive Soldier Fitness

U.S. Army Public Health Command