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America at War

Military Tattoos

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Fort Hood Tattoos
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American soldiers have been getting tattoos since the nineteenth century, but as the war in Iraq continues, the types of tattoos evolve. Reporter Michael May visited some tattoo parlors in Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood Army Base, to find out more about the permanent mementos that soldiers carry.

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American Illustrators is one of the more than a dozen tattoo parlors that line the main drag of this flat, spread-out town. Inside the parlor is large and bright, with hundreds of tattoo designs displayed in poster-sized books hanging near the front door. Artist Toby Fry sits down with a soldier who just returned from Iraq.

"What's this about an MRI?" Fry asks the soldier.

The soldier replies, "This year, this deployment alone, I was hit by six IEDs, I've had three concussions, and they're seeing spots on my brain. There worried about brain damage. But everyone who knows me for more than five minutes knows I have brain damage, and it's not from an IED!"

"Like everyone here!"

"We're all crazy."

Fry came to Killeen from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. When he saw how much money he could make tattooing soldiers, he stayed. But it hasn't always been easy. He learned that while tattoos may be permanent, soldiers can still lose them in battle.

"You do a tattoo and they come back and that tattoo is partially missing. I've never experienced that as a tattoo artist before. Everyone feels a little bit of it."

Fry does four distinct types of military tattoos. The first is a style favored by fresh-recruits. You could call it gung-ho Americana. Today, Private Thomas Hair gets the finishing touches on a billowing three-mast ship that sails across his forearm.

"Originally the scroll underneath it said 'Homeward'," Hair explains. "But I changed it to 'Wayward.' I'm definitely not homeward; I got a few years left."

It's a bit of black humor. Thomas knows he'll soon be bound for Iraq, and the vintage stock tattoos connect him to an older generation of soldiers who went to war.

Hair says that the military and tattoos go together. "It's also a way to make me more into a normal person; I can be me, instead of Private Hair. I can be my own person, and stand out."

The second kind of military tattoo is for soldiers who want to make their uniform permanent. Some do this for practical reasons - they tattoo their military IDs on their torsos in case they become separated from their heads. Those tattoos are called "meat tags." Other soldiers tattoo the symbol of their platoon, rank or specialty on their bodies out of pride or bravado.

Sergeant Ryan Williams had the symbol for his military specialty, tattooed on his arm. It's a fist holding lightning bolts. But Williams had more elaborate plans.

"So I have it chopped off with a bone sticking out, because I like that gory stuff. And I had the word "fist" tattooed on the knuckles, and made the fist blue, so it looks like it's rotting."

Williams has divided his whole body, right and left, into Dr. Jeckle and Mr Hyde. On the right side of his chest is a grim reaper figure draped in an American flag. On the other side, over his heart, is the Virgin Mary.

Religious symbols are the third kind of military tattoo. Specialist Daniel Lee spends a lot of his soldier's pay on tattoos. The largest are two on his chest: a pair of hands clasped together in prayer and a portrait of Jesus. He got these just before he was called up.

"The feeling hit that I was going to Iraq, and I wanted to keep my faith somewhere," Lee says. And I kept my faith on my body, where I can see it every time I take a shower. Having a more permanent reminder makes me feel a bit better."

The fourth type of military tattoo is the permanent reminder. Artist Toby Fry says these days he does a memorial tattoo every couple weeks. Tonight he keeps the shop open past closing so he can finish one on the back of a medic named Clint McCullough.

Fry goes to work on a pair of stylized dark wings framing a drop of blood. The name of Clint's unit, "Blood Angels," is written above it. And below are the names of three of his fellow medics who died in Iraq.

"The world is at a huge loss because Dan's not with us anymore. He's an amazing person, awesome friend and one of the greatest medics I've ever met," McCullough says.

"How old was he?" asks Fry

"Twenty-five. He almost made his 26th birthday."

The tattoo takes a couple hours to fill in. McCullough talks about each of the guys on his back. . Dan, John and Frank. "You carry a lot of baggage as a soldier. Losing guys like that. So I just decided to do something external for the rest of the world can see."

Fry finishes the tattoo, and McCullough goes over to the mirror to take a look.

"Oh Yeah. Awesome. Like it."

His tattoo will remain a thin surface reminder of the scars that lie underneath.

  • Music Bridge:
    A Boat of Courage
    Artist: Michio Kurihara
    CD: Sunset Notes (Ba Da Bing)
More stories from our America at War series


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  • By gregory pick


    so im 25 and trying to get into the military and everyone says no because i have a tat on the back of my neck. with a collared shirt no one can see it. i want to serve my country but cant because of a gemini sign. the roman numeral 2. this is bs!!!!!!!!!!

    By patti m


    I am writing an essay and am doing research. I am looking to find our who the comments go to with your organization.
    thank you

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