Dog tags and Veterans Day


by Eric C. Hammerstrom

We scrambled in the wee hours of August 20, 1968, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and the world was on the brink of war.

At Patch Barracks, in Stuttgart, Germany, soldiers went on alert, kissed their wives and children goodbye, and headed for airport tarmacs where they waited to be deployed to all parts of the globe for World War III.

My mother remembers my father’s kiss goodbye. I do not. I was 8 months old. My sister was 3 years old.

My mother followed her orders, dressed us, and reported to the gymnasium at Patch, where she and we were issued dog tags—single dog tags—so we could be identified if necessary.

My father, who was an Army medical officer until I was 3, wore two dog tags. I loved to play with them when I sat on his lap in those rare and fuzzy memories from when I was a toddler. They jingled oddly, a dull clank of stainless steel that has always been a comforting sound. I did not know what they were for.

There were two, I learned years later, so that when a soldier died on the field of battle, his comrades could pull one from his neck as a record of his death, leaving the second behind so the enemy, in an act of chivalry, might give proper burial and notify the casualty’s homeland.

My father wore two of them onto the tarmac that August morning. My mother, sister and I each received one. Mine states my name, “U.S. Citizen,” and “Protestant”—in case of need for proper burial.

How terrified must my mother have been that morning, I wonder? How brave must she have needed to be, with two babies in her arms and one dog tag around each of our necks … and her own?

So many years later, she remembers that day more clearly than my father, whose memory mixes the events with other scrambles and other tarmac times.

As I hold my single dog tag, I think of the scene from Saving Private Ryan, where Tom Hanks’ men casually sort through bag after bag of dog tags from dead paratroopers, hoping they’ll find a tag for John Ryan, so their work will be finished. The scene horrifies me.

There were no such things as dog tags when my ancestors, Henry Gephardt and George Washington Crandall, fought for the Union Army at Shiloh and Gettysburg, respectively, so Civil War soldiers usually scratched their name onto the back of their belt buckle, or left a last letter to the folks at home in their pocket. The Army did not mandate the issue of dog tags until 1913.

Dog tags were round at first, replaced by oval tags during World War II. In 1944, “silencers” were added to the tags for soldiers in combat, so they would no longer clank together and necessitate their own use.

During the Korean War, a second, shorter chain was added to the second tag for, it is sad to think, streamlined processing of casualties. The second tag with the shorter chain could be easily removed from the first and attached to a fallen soldier’s boot, becoming a “toe tag.”

My father came home from the service with two dog tags. So did my father-in-law. So did my uncle. So did my friends Dave and Liz and John and Marty and Dennis. So did my teacher, Bill, and my hockey coach, Darryl. So did my students, Chad and Nate and Adam and Matt and Brett and Tom, and Kaitlin.

Many of my friends still wear them—so many I cannot list them all without forgetting some, and forgetting any of them is the last thing I want to do.

On 11/11 we honor them.

Veterans Day was first called Armistice Day for the moment at exactly 11 a.m. on November 11 when the guns of World War I went silent.

Should you ever happen upon the small town of Culver, Indiana, on November 11, visit Culver Military Academy where I taught and coached during my first year out of college.

The day begins with all cadets donning their finest dress uniforms and marching to Memorial Chapel, where the names of Culver’s dead from “The Great War” are carved into stone walls that flank the entrance. The names are read, a list of names even longer than the list at West Point, followed by silence. Then, silence is broken by the mourning sound of “Taps” played by two buglers: one on the chapel steps, the other echoing at the edge of Lake Maxinkuckee, 300 yards away.

Following the service, cadets march to the shore, where Howitzers fire a 21-gun salute between the lake and Memorial Library. Culver remembers.

In 1954, an act of Congress changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day, in honor of American veterans of all wars.

Veterans Day is when we take the time to thank those who served our country and came home, some whole, some gravely wounded. We’ve become better at “thank-yous” these days, than we were when many of them first came home.

Going to war was not easy for them. Ironically, neither was coming home. And, too often, the war continued after the homecoming.

Those soldiers, their wives, their children, their brothers and sisters, and their comrades in uniform continue the battle of keeping veterans safe from harm. Every day.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, from 1999 to 2010, roughly 22 veterans a day committed suicide—one every 65 minutes. Every day.

A recent study showed the divorce rate among military couples has risen 42 percent during our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As I hold my single dog tag in my hand 48 years later, I give thanks that my father survived his duty and came home with two dog tags. I can’t help but think of the bravery my mother must have needed that morning at Patch Barracks, when she dressed us and prepared for the possibilities that lay ahead for him, and for her, and for us.

I give thanks that my grandfather and my wife’s grandfather both came home from their service in World War II with two dog tags.

I give thanks that my father-in-law came home from his service in Vietnam with two dog tags, and recall feeling incredible pride for him when I watched him take my daughter by the hand to show her the Traveling Wall this past summer. I give thanks for the love and patience and toughness and devotion my mother-in-law has shown for all these years.

I give thanks that my friend Jake returned with two dog tags, and for his wife Paula who loved him for the kind of man he was despite the fact he returned with just one leg.

I give thanks for the doctors and nurses who helped them survive the wars, and for the counselors, friends and family who help them survive the aftermath.

My life would be incomplete without these great men and women who taught me how to love and laugh and accept life as a gift, one all too often taken for granted by those who have not served.

Soldiers are sometimes uncomfortable with the word “love.” They reserve that word for special moments, as though saying the word somehow diminishes its value. It’s not always an easy word to say.

Our veterans loved their country when loving it wasn’t easy, and it’s our job to love them back, knowing there will be many days when that, too, will not be easy.

Fortunately, as we are taught, “love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres … Love never fails.”

Every day, not just on Veterans Day, it is the job of those who did not serve to love those who did. Sometimes, that’s easy to forget with all our wars half a world away and pushed aside by headlines about other things.

Some remember to show that love every day, but we can all remember to do so on 11/11.

It’s simple: this Veterans Day, please thank our veterans.

And then, after that veteran humbly explains he or she was simply doing what had to be done, quietly turn to the wife or friend or child by their side and say, “Thank you, too.”

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