- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003

A “Shield of Strength” hung on the chain around Capt. 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-by-2-inch shield, which Capt. Rippetoe wore along with his military dog tags and a Christian cross, displayed a U.S. flag on one side and a quote 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.”

Produced by a Beaumont, Texas, group, the shields may seem just trinkets to some. But for more than 100,000 U.S. military personnel and their families, they 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 Lt. Col. Joe Rippetoe, a Gaithersburg resident who was disabled in two tours of duty in Vietnam.

His 27-year-old son, from Arvada, Colo., 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 religious symbol.

The first question Mr. Bush asked was whether Lt. Col. 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,” his father said.

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

The commander in chief receiving a Shield of Strength was a milestone of sorts for Kenny Vaughan, who first had dog tags engraved with Scriptures in 1997.

Mr. Vaughan, a Beaumont native, wasn’t part of the military. He was actually a water-skiing champion who had just won his first national championship for long jumping after overcoming fears that had hampered his performance for years.

His girlfriend, Tammie, now his wife, had 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,” Mr. Vaughan said. “So I bought a few military dog tags and engraved the Scriptures.”

Relatives and friends liked the idea — so much so that Mr. 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.

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jacqueline R. Clay, in e-mail from Baghdad, said she “cannot even begin to count how many soldiers are wearing them.”

“It also has a spiritual camaraderie impact,” Sgt. Maj. Clay wrote, “for example, when you meet another Christian or military member and they have the shield on their ID tags … it bonds you, even though you may not know them.”

Ironically, Mr. 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 dog tags.

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

The e-mail was sent on a Monday.

“By Wednesday, he had Fed-Exed 500 of them,” recalled Lt. Col. Dodd, now stationed at the Pentagon after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Lt. Col. 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.

“When you’re over there and the only thing you have with you is your equipment,” he 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,” he said.

Comforting words not just for those fighting, but for those left behind.

Mr. Vaughan mailed 1,000 Shields of Strength — at no charge — to Joe Rippetoe after his son died. To go along with them, Lt. Col. Rippetoe had separate dog tags made with this inscription:

CPT RIPPETOE

RUSSELL B

JULY 21, 1975

APRIL 3, 2003

IRAQ WAR HERO

As a “thank you” for letters, cards, poems and money received after his son’s death, Mr. Rippetoe gives well-wishers a shield and a dog tag.


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