Morale: Dog Tags Evolve


December 27, 2015: The U.S. Army finally agreed, after more than a decade of growing complaints, to remove the social security number (SSN) from the metal dog tags all military personnel must wear at all times. The SSN was added in the 1970s, replacing the unique ID number troops had been assigned on entering service. By the 1990s troop complaints were growing that the SSN was increasingly used by criminals to commit fraud. Thus in 2007 the military began studying how to replace the SSN with a more secure ID number.

Every soldier gets issued two ID Tags and a chain hold the tags as they are worn around the neck. These "dog tags" have been with the army since 1906. Early on, soldiers found that if you need access to something important and didn't want to have to dig through your pockets to get it, you could hang it on the same chain you had your dog tags on. In World War II, Korea and Vietnam the most prevalent item on a GI's dog tag chain was the P38 can opener for cans C-ration came in. This P38 disappeared in the 1980s as MRE rations (no cans, just plastic bags) replaced C-rations. In the late 1990s the USB thumb drive or "memory stick" appeared and troops began to add one of those to the dog tag chain. Troops kept their email from home, digital pictures and all manner of stuff on these USB devices. Some officers tied to forbid the practice, as you are not supposed to take such documents with you into a combat zone (lest you be captured and the data prove useful to the enemy.) But the troops still carry the memory sticks around with them. The terrorists also liked to schlep data around on memory sticks. But it took time to find the useful secrets, though, as you first have to plow through all the porn and MP3 files.

Meanwhile the U.S. Army has, since the 1990s, been trying to replace the dog tags with an electronic device. This effort has had a hard time designing and building a device that was able to survive the harsh battlefield conditions. The army thought they had a suitable design in 2006 and tested a credit card size device in 2006. There were some 13,000 troops carrying the bulkier prototype. These "smart dog tags" did not survive in the combat zone and a new prototype is in the works.

When a workable smart dog tag is built medics treating a soldier would hold the scanner near smart dog tag and get all the essential medical data. The smart dog tag would get updated as treatment continued. Thus the soldier would always have his complete medical history with him. That data would include allergies (especially to some medicines) and previous treatments.

By 2006 the army had computerized medical information on 9.2 million troops and their dependents. Thousands of medics in Iraq and Afghanistan had electronic devices that could access that data as needed. Quick access to this data is one of the many factors that has brought down the death rate in the combat zone. Having all that data in an electronic database also makes it much easier to find useful patterns in treatments, injuries and diseases. This, in turn, makes it easier to find and fix problems. For the moment, that is the future of the dog tag.




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