No Dog Tags for Atheists
Now, where’s my foxhole?
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 1.
During my traditional spring cleaning of desk drawers, I
happened upon a souvenir of my service in the U.S. military that brought forth a
flood of memories. It was a set of dog tags, but not ordinary dog tags. In fact,
as far as I know, they are the only ones of their kind in existence.
In 1996, at the height of hostilities in
Bosnia-Herzegovina, I received a six-month assignment with the United Nations
Peacekeeping Force. I was to serve as the Air Operations Officer at the UN’s
headquarters in Zagreb, Croatia. Having been given a list of required items to
bring with me to Zagreb, I set about collecting them. One of the items was a set
of dog tags. I could not recall what had happened to the first set, but I did
recall the day I received them, shortly after entering the Air Force many years
One of the questions I was asked by the young airman at the
base personnel office was, “What is your religion?” When I replied that I
was an atheist, he informed me that “atheist” was not on the list of
approved religions and that he would have to put me down as having “no
preference.” When I insisted that that would not be an accurate description of
my belief—or nonbelief—he called for his boss, a crusty old major. I
explained to the major that it was not a case of my not having a preference
among the “approved” religions, but that I rejected them all. Judging by the
major’s scowl, this argument was apparently less than persuasive, and I was
issued a set with the phrase “no religious preference” stamped on them.
Many years later, seated in a base personnel office once
again, and needing a new set of dog tags to take with me to Zagreb, I made the
same argument. I naively thought that, as a crusty old major myself now, I might
have a better chance at getting dog tags that accurately reflected my lack of
belief in the supernatural. Moreover, this time it was not just an abstract
argument for me. There was a possibility that my duties would require me to
travel to Sarajevo and, therefore, a chance that I could find myself under fire.
It’s sometimes said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I wasn’t too
keen on the idea of having to personally dispel that myth. But if the worst
should happen, I thought, a funeral service held for me would be presided over
by some generic chaplain because my dog tags indicated “no religious
preference.” I didn’t want a religious service, because I’m an atheist!
But I was trumped again, this time by a seasoned lieutenant colonel in the
personnel office. I refused the dog tags, knowing that this might cause me
Back in my own office, I noticed a fellow pilot thumbing
through a catalogue catering to paramilitary types and military “wannabes.”
As providence would have it, the catalogue featured custom-made
“authentic military-style dog tags.” That evening I placed a call to the
company and ordered a set of dog tags. There was a brief silence at the other
end of the line when I specified “atheist” as my religious preference, but
no objection that it was not on the approved list. I received the dog tags just
in time to proudly wear them as I boarded the flight to Zagreb.
Why do I believe that my dog tags are one of a kind? Even
assuming that there’s another military atheist somewhere who took the trouble
to go outside the official channels and custom order dog tags, it’s unlikely
that there’s another set of dog tags with the word atheist misspelled as “athiest,”
as it is on mine! I guess that was God’s revenge—or sense of humor—for my
not sticking to the approved list. Nevertheless, my misspelled atheist dog tags
are one of the most cherished mementos from my military career.
Daniel O’Neal is an adjunct professor of German at The
Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and a member of the Secular Humanists of