For the first time in 40 years, the U.S. Army is making changes to a century-old piece of hardware, dog tags, the identification implements that hang around each soldier’s neck.
For a low-tech thing like the aluminum dog tag, the reason for the change is decidedly high-tech, the threat of identity theft. On the new dog tags, the service member’s Social Security number will be replaced with a randomly-generated, 10-digit Department of Defense identification number.
“If you find a pair of lost ID tags you can pretty much do anything with that person’s identity because you now have their blood type, their religion, you have their social, and you have their name. The only thing missing is their birth date and you can usually get that by Googling a person,” Michael Klemowski, Soldiers Programs Branch chief, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, said in an Army press release.
The change was mandated in 2007, but it has taken the military this long to replace the Social Security number with the 10-digit idea number through a number of systems, Klemowski said.
While identity theft may be among the most impersonal of crimes, the dog tags are anything but that.
“Dog tags are highly personal items to warriors of every service and to their families as well,” says a Library of Congress tribute to the dog tag produced in 2012. “The tag itself individualizes the human being who wears it, despite his or her role as a small part of a huge and faceless organization. While the armed forces demand obedience and duty to a higher cause, dog tags, hanging under service members’ shirts and close to their chests, remind them of their individuality.”
The tags became part of the Army field kit shortly before World War I. By July 1916, the Army was issuing two of the tags to each soldier, one that would stay with the remains of those lost in battle and one that would go to the burial unit, according to the Armed Forces History Museum.
The tags “bring comfort and help calm the fears of soldiers facing death,” the Library of Congress tribute says, allowing them to know they would not be forgotten or become an unknown casualty.
Klemowski said the change would not be immediate for all soldiers.
“We are focusing first on the personnel who are going to deploy. If a soldier is going to deploy, they are the first ones that need to have the new ID tags,” he said in the Army release.