By Cheryl Rodewig, The BayonetMay 13, 2010
FORT BENNING, Ga. - Shields of Strength hang around the neck of hundreds of Rangers, including competitors in the 2010 Best Ranger Competition, engraved with scripture, prayers and military insignia. They're fashioned after military dog tags, but the shields cross all walks of life. They have been worn by members of all services and their families, by public safety officials, athletes and politicians - by more than 3 million Americans - since 1997.
That was the year after Kenny Vaughan, who created Shields of Strength, brought home the gold at the National Water Ski Championships.
Before his 1996 win, Vaughan had received several injuries competing in championships.
"I ended up just becoming afraid of failing because it seemed like every time I almost got to the point to make my dream come true, the wheels would just come off. I quit skiing for about five years," he said.
His girlfriend, who would later become his wife, brought him back to the sport by writing a Bible verse - "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" - on his ski handle.
"It encouraged me to see that, just to know that maybe I didn't have to fear, to know I didn't have to live in it, that I could overcome it," said Vaughan, who, despite damaged equipment and an injury, jumped farther than he ever had before at the '96 championships.
"I got the gold medal, which was great, but the real trophy was that change in my heart," he said. "That applied not only to ski jumping but to everything in my life."
As a personal reminder, he had Joshua 1:9, another verse of encouragement, inscribed on a dog tag. As others began noticing the memento, he created more and started sharing the tags, nicknamed Shields of Strength by his brother, with friends and strangers.
"I try to get (them) to as many Soldiers as I can. We made a lot for the Rangers," said Vaughan, who passed out more than 100 this year at the BRC.
"I always loved the military. My father was in the military. But after meeting and getting to know (the Soldiers), I really had no idea of the sacrifices they make. They pay a high price," he said. "My story doesn't compare in any way, shape or form to a Soldier's. I was chasing a dream while they're facing life and death. I'm just praying Shields of Strength ... would encourage them ... keep them in their purpose, keep them in the fight."
The tradition of service members wearing Shields of Strength dates back to 2003. LTC(R) Joe Rippetoe, a Vietnam veteran and former Ranger, has given away more than 1,000 over the years - ever since his son, CPT Russell Rippetoe was killed in action in Iraq. Rippetoe, who became the first Soldier from Operation Iraqi Freedom to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, wore the same Joshua 1:9 Shields of Strength next to his military dog tags.
The chaplain for 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, gave him the shields while he was deployed in Afghanistan, said Rippetoe, who held onto both of the shields until one day at the White House, President George W. Bush asked for one.
"How he knew I had no idea ... but I pulled out one of the two Russell had given me and I gave it to the president," Rippetoe said. "I have now received maybe a couple thousand of these and I give them out to people. I've passed out probably 200 (to) 300 since I've been here and I came in Tuesday. These have turned into a snowball effect. It's unreal."
Since the 2003 Memorial Day ceremony, when Bush mentioned Russell's Shields of Strength, the tags have gained in popularity. The shields are sold at the PX, Ranger Joe's and the National Infantry Museum.
The shields now include different verses and phrases; can be personalized for specific units; and come in a variety of styles for different occupations, military spouses and veterans.
And Russell's second Shield of Strength' It rests alongside his other military items, such as his Ranger Bible and dog tags, at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.