Dog tags identify more than the present
By Col. Michael J. Underkofler, 22nd Air Force Chief of Staff
/ Published April 20, 2009
DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga. -- My first instructor at USAF pilot training barked: "always wear your dog tags when you fly so we'll know who you are." Since I feared the guy, I did as I was told. Those two small disks, embossed with my name, social security number, blood type and religion have almost always dangled around my neck. Putting them on every day became automatic.
Occasionally while out of uniform, civilians have commented on my service. Initially surprised, I'd soon realize the dog tag chain around my neck was visible. It's been rare to be disparaged when recognized as a military member -- a far cry from the treatment my father-in-law and his fellow soldiers often received during the Vietnam conflict.
I have thought about this juxtaposition of military experiences and how identification markers have been used historically to distinguish, sometimes even among the relatively indistinguishable. One horrific example I focused on was what the Nazis forced some to wear.
Those deemed undesirable or enemies of the state were forced to don cloth triangles. Jews typically wore two yellow triangles overlapped to form the Star of David. Later, in concentration camps, Gypsies wore black or brown triangles, Jehovah's Witnesses wore purple, political prisoners wore red, homosexuals pink, emigrants blue and criminals green.
By distinguishing people, encouraging discord and assigning false blame, the Nazis justified the inhuman treatment and ultimately the greatest genocide the world has ever experienced -- the Holocaust. So effective was the process, in a few short years the Nazis systematically murdered six million Jews, approximately two-thirds of those living in pre-war Europe.
Killed along with the Jews were five million others, many of whom defied the Nazis or sheltered Jews. Twenty percent of the diocesan Roman Catholic priests from Poland died. At the infamous Auschwitz camp, Father Maximilian Kolb offered to die by starvation in place of another prisoner targeted for death.
Military units reached the death camps in the spring of 1945. If they hadn't, most European Jews and many more non-Jews would have died as Hitler neared his final solution -- the eradication of all Jews on the continent.
Our military forebears were not prepared for the wretchedness they would find, but instinctively knew to bury and honor the dead and nurse to health the gaunt living who remained. They also helped document what they saw to help prevent the untruths of others who would later deny it ever happened.
We as a nation formally remember the Holocaust, or "shoah" in Hebrew, through a week-long program called the Days of Remembrance. This year it's April 19-26, with Yom Hashoah, or the day of the Holocaust Remembrance, falling on the 21st.
This spring, participate in a remembrance ceremony on your base or in your community. Listen to the stories of survivors and liberators as soon their voices will be silenced. Read a book, see a movie, or go online to learn about eliminating hatred, bigotry and indifference.
By consistently and accurately telling the story of the Holocaust and remembering those who died, we help ensure future generations know the consequences when such inhumanity is left unchecked and unchallenged.
Through heightened awareness of the Holocaust, my dog tags are now not just disks to possibly identify my remains. I use them as daily reminders of the lives destroyed and to laud the death camp liberators. I challenge you to do the same during the Days of Remembrance.
Think about the victims, heroes and liberators and consider what you can do daily to help eliminate false-blame, hatred and indifference, especially in the society we are sworn to protect and serve.