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November 15, 2003

Scripture tags offer hope, comfort to soldiers in Iraq

A "Shield of Strength" hung on the chain around Captain Russell B. Rippetoe's neck when the Army Ranger and two other soldiers were killed in a car bomb explosion at an Iraqi checkpoint.

The 1-inch by 2-inch shield, which Rippetoe wore along with his military dog tags and a Christian cross, displayed a U.S. flag on one side and a verse from Joshua 1:9 on the other: "I will be strong and courageous. I will not be terrified, or discouraged, for the Lord my God is with me wherever I go."

In a way, the shield -- a Christian version of a dog tag -- is just a cheap piece of stainless steel.

But for more than 100,000 U.S. military personnel and their families, the shields produced by a Beaumont organization offer comfort and hope in the most trying of times.

"All the men who served with my son wear the shield around their necks, as do many of the elite 75th Rangers," said retired Lieutenant Colonel Joe Rippetoe, a Gaithersburg, Maryland, resident who was wounded in two tours of duty in Vietnam.

His 27-year-old son, from Arvada, Colorado, died in early April and was the first soldier from the Iraq war laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. On Memorial Day, the grieving father visited at the White House with President Bush, who had heard about the Christian dog tag.

The first question Bush asked was whether Rippetoe had his son's Joshua 1:9 tag.

"As luck would have it, I had Russell's original tag and one that Chaplain (Brad) Baumann had given me at the unit memorial service," Rippetoe said.

Rippetoe kept the original tag, the plastic around the edges scorched in the bombing, and gave the president the other one. Bush mentioned it later that day in a memorial speech at Arlington National Cemetery.

The commander in chief receiving a Shield of Strength represented a milestone of sorts for Kenny Vaughan, a 35-year-old water skiing champion who first had dog tags engraved with Scriptures in 1997.

At the time, the Beaumont native had just won his first national championship for long jumping after overcoming fears that had hampered his performance for years.

He did so after his girlfriend Tammie, now his wife, painted Scriptures on the handle of his tow rope, including this one from Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

"I wanted a daily reminder of God's word, but I figured I would look silly carrying my water ski rope handles," Vaughan said. "So I bought a few military dog tags and engraved the Scriptures."

Relatives and friends liked the idea -- so much so that Vaughan kept giving his tags away and going back to get more engraved.

By the time he paid for each letter he had engraved, it cost him about $20 a tag. He decided it would be more cost-effective to make his own.

So he started an organization called Athletes for Christ and began producing Shields of Strength for athletes, police officers, firefighters and other professions. Within three years, the shields had spread to Christian bookstores in all 50 states. The tags sell for about $5 each retail.

Vaughan never marketed the product to the military. He worried that people serving their country might be upset by what he was doing. After all, he was a civilian and had not earned the right to wear a dog tag.

His concern vanished after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he received an e-mail from Fort Huachuca, Ariz. A soldier had come across a Shield of Strength and shown it to Lt. Col. David Dodd, who wanted some for troops leaving for Afghanistan.

The e-mail was sent on a Monday. "By Wednesday, he had Fed-Exed 500 of them," recalled Dodd, now stationed at the Pentagon.

Dodd said his wife, Sharon, keeps a Shield of Strength on her key chain. His daughters, Caitlin, 15, and Grace, 9, wear them around their necks, like tens of thousands of soldiers.

"When you're over there and the only thing you have with you is your equipment," Dodd said, "it's an environment where people really start thinking about what's important.

"Most people start seeking some kind of spiritual fitness. So these were comforting words."

Posted: 16 November 2003