ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, May 19, 2008) - In Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest, a mother recently clutched her son's dog tags.
The chain drooped over the mother's clinched fist as rifles were fired and Taps played. Those pieces of metal gave her comfort, she said. The tags had once hung beneath her son's shirt, and over his heart, and the mother said when she holds them now, she feels close to him.
Much like that mother, Karen Meredith wrote about her son, Ken Ballard, killed in Najaf, Iraq, May 30, 2004: "When my son's body was returned to me, they gave me what was on his body when he was killed; his belt-buckle, his spurs (Cavalry), and his dog tags. I immediately put them on and have not removed them for anything; not for airport security, not for a mammogram. They stay close to my heart where my son will always be."
These small pieces of metal hanging from the neck of every servicemember are intended to help identify remains of the fallen and have been a uniform requirement since World War I. Science has come a long way since then and future identification system just might render them obsolete, but the name, image, and personal connection many feel to their tags go beyond their simple, primary purpose.
At the American Civil War battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, before Union troops made a frontal assault on Confederate trenches, they wrote their names on pieces of paper and pinned them to their uniforms. They did not want to be forgotten.
During the Spanish American War, Chaplain Charles E. Pierce believed the identity of war dead should be practiced on a more scientific basis. He suggested a central collection agency where mortuary records would be gathered, and the addition of an "Identity Disk" in every Soldier's combat field kit. This "Identity Disk," in 1899, is considered the first institutionalized identification tag.
U.S. troops were issued identification tags en masse in 1908 and the tags have been a required part of the uniform ever since.
The nickname for the ID tag was first coined by William Randolph Hearst who printed unfavorable stories about the New Deal and President Roosevelt in 1936. Having heard the Social Security Administration was considering the use of a nameplate for personal identification, Hearst called it a "Dog Tag."
The tangible tags connect one personally to an otherwise large and anonymous world, and they are the center of countless stories — like the one about Joe Beyrle, a paratrooper captured by the Nazis. A German soldier took Beyrle's dog tags and put them around his own neck. While wearing an American uniform and Beyrle's dog tags, the German soldier was killed. A telegram was sent to Beyrle's family in the states telling them he was dead.
In January 1945, Beyrle escaped and joined a Russian unit, fighting alongside them as a machine gunner for at least a month. After he was wounded by German bombers, he was taken to a hospital, and eventually made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, hoping to return home. Embassy officials at first, though, did not believe the fighter was Beyrle. It was not until Beyrle's fingerprints proved his identity that he finally was able to return home in September 1946. Ironically, he was married in the same church where his memorial service had taken place a year before.
Tanna Toney-Ferris was walking her dog on a beach in Southern California, when her
eyes caught an unusual rock piece. She bent down to pick it up and realized there was a military ID tag embedded in the rock.
"It seemed to be attached to a key ring, as there were a few other items embedded in the rock also — a key, fingernail clippers and a small screwdriver. Much to my amazement, I could make out his name, ID #, branch of service and his religion," said Tanna. "My first thought was that this Sailor had perished at sea and I held his last farewell to this world in my hand. All I could think of was how much I wanted to return this brave Sailor's Dog Tags to his family and I wasn't sure how to go about doing that. So for the next 3 years, they sat on a shelf with other treasures that I had found on our many walks along the beach.'"
Tanna finally found the now 62 year old veteran living in Wisconsin. Having served in the Navy on the USS Pledge, he had lost his first set of tags more than 30 years ago. After numerous e-mails and phone calls, they met in person and Tanna was able to hand him his tags.
Tanna is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders. This group rides their motorcycles to show respect for fallen heroes, their Families, and their communities by shielding the mourning family. This is the type of emotional response and connection people have for many who serve.
General John A. Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, wrote General Order #11 on May 5, 1868, for the observance of Memorial Day. He wanted us to sustain the fraternal feelings of those having died for their country, and for us to guard their gravesites, "a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders."
As much as Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, the dog tag is a daily reminder that in the professions of arms, to be forgotten is the cruelest fate. The dog tag is more than 100 years old, and this little piece of metal connects us to those slain defenders. To each it might mean something different, but to the millions of service members, past and present who were required to wear one, the Dog Tag is a symbol of service and personal sacrifice. Most importantly, it is a reminder of the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice. We shall not forget.