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Commentary: A thoughtful, useful gift for the Fourth of July

Hans Gottwald clutches a small American flag under his military dog tags in 2019.
Hans Gottwald clutches a small American flag under his military dog tags while he waits for his naturalization ceremony to begin in September 2019. Columnist Jim Carnett writes in praise of identification dog tags, a gift his wife gave him on July 4.
(Annie Mulligan)

My wife, Hedy, gave me a wonderful Fourth of July gift last week.

She honored me with two sets of faux U.S. Army dog tags. Hooah! Just what I wanted … and needed.

“Hot dogs?” say you. “She gave you two hot dogs?”

It is, after all, Nathan’s hot dog-gorging season.

Not hot dogs, you ninny, dog tags! And, no, I’m not kidding. Dear Hedy couldn’t have purchased for me a $20 gift more meaningful and appreciated than this.

I’m touched by her thoughtfulness.

The new tag is a replica of my U.S. Army dog tags, circa 1964. Though we’ve been married 45 years, Hedy never knew me as Specialist 5, Jim Carnett, U.S. Army. And, really, it’s best she didn’t. As a GI, I was rough around the edges.

Hedy and I met long after my 1967 discharge. We were married in 1975.

Her Independence Day gift was just what I’ve wanted.

On Monday, workers equipped with brooms, blowers and shovels cleared debris left over from Friday night flooding caused by a rare coincidence of storms and higher-than-usual tides.

I served in the Army from 1964 to 1967 and was issued dog tags during my first week of basic training at Fort Ord, Calif. The tags remained on my person, without interruption, 24/7, for the next three years. There was a punishment — though I don’t remember what — for losing one’s tags, or for not wearing them. As a platoon sergeant, I never wanted to have to frisk my troops for missing tags.

The basic function of the tags was to identify a body on a battlefield. Usually, the entire package consisted of two metal tags dangling from a ball chain. The tags produced a distinctive and melodious jingle while bouncing off your chest. You soon habituated to the pleasant sound.

Every morning during boot camp, we had to perform a regimen of Army exercises (PT). Dressed in fatigue pants and T-shirts, you could hear 300 sets of dog tags jingling. Now, at 75, I hear that same sound as I perform my morning Parkinson’s exercises. The jingling conjures for me many good memories. Many familiar faces.

The purpose of the tags is to convey to some random authority — should I be unable to do so myself — my name, military ID number, blood type and religious affiliation. The constant soft tinkling of the chain and tags was reassuring and served as a reminder of my duty and purpose. It also clarified to whom I belonged.

When I was discharged in 1967, the dog tags were unceremoniously dumped — along with a host of uniform parts, artifacts, paperwork, photographs, letters, news clippings, official documents, transfer orders, etc. — into a footlocker that I purchased for $15 at an Orange County Army-Navy Store. For more than half a century, the materials have resided therein.

I’ve gone back to the footlocker only two or three times over the decades. The most recent visitation would have occurred in the early 1990s or so. Frankly, it wasn’t much of an inspection. You see, I have an aversion to cobwebs and box spiders. They creep me out … big time.

I’m absolutely certain that I would never have tossed away my Army-issued dog tags on the occasion of my discharge. Never. But, where are they, today? I’m guessing they lie at the bottom of that dank footlocker in my garage.

As mentioned earlier, I have a thing about cobwebs.

I’ve often wished that I had the old tags swinging from my neck again, summoning warm memories of the past. As a current member of American Legion Post 291 of Newport Beach, I’ve noted a considerable number of my colleagues wearing dog tags beneath their stylish Reyn Spooners.

Seeing those iconic IDs on my brothers and sisters has prompted a passion within my spirit to sport my tags. Almost at once I was an impatient third-grader. I want my dog tags now!

It became an obsession.

But I wasn’t obsessed enough to plow through a moldering, mildewed and cobweb-infested footlocker. Not on your life.

Hedy to the rescue!

My Guardian Angel went online and found an American firm that produces custom, embossed-text, military dog tags. They look like the “real” ones I wore in the mid-1960s.

I again hear that soothing jingling.

And it feels good.

The writer is a former columnist for the Daily Pilot.

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