I was young, naive’ and freshly enlisted in the United States
Military. I had little information about what to expect
during those baffling days of having my head shaved, surrendering
blue jeans and madras shirt and penny loafers
in return for olive drab fatigues and black combat boots.
Along with a long line of likewise raw young recruits, I was
blood-typed, finger-printed, photographed and issued a
“service number “ that is as fresh in my mind today as it was when
my Drill Instructor beat it into my brain thirty-six
And then came the stamping of our “dog tags.” I would be issued two
of these small, metal plates and would be
required to wear them on a simple chain around my neck for as long
as I was a member of the Armed Forces of the
United States. As odd-sounding as the term “dog tag” was, we never
talked about it in those days.” Were we about
to become dogs? Had we been dogs and only now were discovering our
true lots in life?
Indeed, my identity – the one I had known before joining the “long
green line” was quickly vanishing. With my
shaved head and green fatigues, I looked remarkably like the
hundreds of young men surrounding me. Only the
name tag on my right breast indicated I was anyone separate or
different from the next guy in line.
As the line of recruits inched along, I appeared before a man whose
job it was to stamp my tags. On that piece
of tin would be engraved my full name, followed by my service
number, year my training began, blood type and
finally, my “Religious Preference.” Whatever “brand” I was
affiliated with would help get me the right kind of Chaplain
should the need ever arise. Whatever name I gave would be
stamped indelibly on that tag, whether it as Protestant
or Catholic or Methodist, Baptist or Lutheran.
And at the question, “Religious Preference?” I was stunned. Watching
my hair fall in heaps on the barbershop floor
hadn’t fazed me. Buttoning the universal olive drab jacket hadn’t
shaken my sense of style. The young man with the
huge needle that had drawn my blood or injected me with mysterious
fluids hadn’t frightened me.
But now I was confronted with a question I didn’t know how to
answer. I heard the voice in front of me repeat the
question, “Religious Preference? – Come on buddy, there’s one or two
people waitin’ behind you!”
And then I heard my own
voice cough up an answer. "Uh, none." Without batting an eye, the man went
about his work, setting the type, the dog tag machine punching metal
and my own, personal
dog tags containing information deemed
vital to my survival as a member of the Armed Forces of the United
States were produced.
"Austin, Gregory J." they began; and then following my service
number and blood type, the bottom line read, "NO REL PREF." No
religious preference. That was as accurate a description of my
spiritual convictions as could be engraved on metal. Not "atheist"
or "God-hater" or "Satan-worshipper." Just, no religious preference.
Those tags hung around my neck for years. I learned to thread
one tag into my boot lace on the
theory that if I
lost my head, I might still have my foot attached On each end of me
would be verification of my identity should the
need arise to make such a determination.
Four years later, I completed my first enlistment in the military.
During those years I not only had become a “GI”, but
I also met Jesus and had become His follower. I went to college,
became a pastor, enlisted briefly in the military
again, served churches for more than a quarter century, preached to
hundreds of thousands, led ministries, sometimes experienced the
mountain-top of victory and sometimes plummeted into the valley of
the shadow of death, and tried in all those years
to follow Jesus as closely as possible.
And those dog tags, now corroded and rusty and worn with time and
use still are with me. They hang above my desk
as a reminder of the life I knew as a soldier. My mind may be
producing grayer images of the events of the last thirty-
nine years, but the information on those dog tags is still fresh in
my mind. Name, Service Number, Blood Type,
And interestingly, thirty-nine years after they were issued to me,
not one letter, number, affiliation or name contained on those dog tags
So for the sake of your tradition (the rules handed down by your
forefathers), you have set aside the Word of God
[depriving it of force and authority and making it of no effect].
Matthew 15:6, Amplified
I’m ready to re-enlist in God’s army, and if dog tags again are
required, I’ll answer the question the same way I did
almost four decades ago: “No Religious Preference.”