Commentary

Anti-religion group seeks to deny troops inspirational dog tags

When America sends her men and women into harm’s way, she is duty-bound to ensure those brave men and women are equipped for battle.

Our military is obligated to prepare our troops for the rigors of combat — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But in its latest attack on religious freedom in our military, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), actually seeks to undercut our troops’ spiritual readiness by denying them the ability to obtain replica dog tags with Bible verses inscribed on them. This is both legally and morally wrong.

Recent events and headlines serve to remind us that tensions remain high in the Persian Gulf region. In response, the U.S. is increasing its military presence in the region, with more on the way. Within the coming weeks and months, thousands of American troops will leave their families and loved ones to head “downrange” in order to protect our nation.

As a Marine Corps veteran who deployed to Afghanistan, I know how it feels to leave everything behind and go into a war zone. Simply put, it can be terrifying. On one of my very first nights in Afghanistan, the enemy attacked us with mortars. It was the first time in my life I realized that someone with the means and the motive was trying to kill me and my friends. With no practical way to fight back, the only thing I could do was to pray.

That is why spiritual readiness is so important. When our troops find themselves surrounded by death and destruction, faith is often the only thing that sustains them.

For this reason, Kenny Vaughan started Shields of Strength (“SoS”). SoS is a small, faith-based company from Texas that produces military-themed items inscribed with encouraging Bible verses. For more than two decades, Kenny has been making these inspirational replica dog tags for service members and first responders. To date, SoS has donated hundreds of thousands of its replica dog tags to military units.

Kenny understands what I learned first-hand in Afghanistan; such a small token of faith is a cherished part of a service member’s identity. To each soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who wears one, the Shield is much more than a piece of metal. It’s a powerful, personal reminder of why they serve, and that even in the midst of danger, they can be strong and courageous.

Over the years, SoS replica dog tags became so popular and so nearly ubiquitous that, according to author and historian Stephen Mansfield, “aside from the official insignias they wear, [the SoS dog tag] is the emblem most often carried by members of the military in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

As the military “operational tempo” increased following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, so did requests for SoS replica dog tags. At one point during Operation Iraqi Freedom, SoS was delivering over 50,000 Shields per month, and even fulfilled a single request for 30,000 Shields.

Incredibly, aforementioned MRFF is actually working to deny SoS from our military. Last summer, the MRFF threatened legal action to “compel compliance” with its radical agenda unless the Pentagon banned SoS from including religious references on its licensed products.

Shockingly, Pentagon officials immediately raised the white flag of surrender and did exactly as MRFF demanded. One official even cited the “negative press” the MRFF caused as the basis for its decision.

As a result, SoS has had to deny requests for its replica dog tags.

Recently, one Marine Corps unit requested for 2,000 replica dog tags to be distributed to Marines who want them. Many of those Marines could very well find themselves in harm’s way in the near future. Sadly, because of MRFF and the Marine Corps Trademark Office’s decision, SoS is not able to fulfill their request, leaving Kenny Vaughan heartbroken.

But there is hope. First Liberty Institute is defending SoS’s right to produce and distribute replica dog tags with Bible verses, and the right of every service member who wants one to be able to have their own personal reminder of their faith.

We owe it to every man and woman who has ever worn the uniform of the United States military to ensure that they are fully equipped to face the dangers that lurk. That means preparing them for battle physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Mike Berry is chief of staff for First Liberty Institute, a legal organization dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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