Loss, Patriotism, Resistance: Veterans’ Tattoos Speak Loudly About Their Service

Maj. Matthew, 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Commander’s Action Group chief, displays his tattoos Jan. 26, 2017, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
U.S. Air Force photo

The American flag, when borne on the shoulder patch of an active-duty soldier, is supposed to be reversed, says Timothy Mangolds.

“It’s supposed to commemorate [that] you’re always running toward battle” with the flag appearing as if it’s flowing behind you, explains the 27-year old who served in the Army from 2009 to 2012.

When their lieutenant was killed in action in Kirkuk, Iraq, in 2011, Mangolds and his platoon decided to get identical American flag tattoos. But Mangolds’ tattoo, the colors of which emulate the subdued palette found on combat uniforms, is righted, with the stars on the left, as you might see on a flagpole or a lapel pin.

Retired Tech. Sgt. Chris Ferrell, a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury after combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, displays a tattoo on his left arm with 26 stars representing teammates and friends killed in action.U.S. Air Force photo

After some discussion, Mangolds’ platoon had agreed it would be proper to adopt the more conventional orientation. “As a sign of respect to him. Because he’s going back home,” Mangolds says.

The tattoo is a reminder of his lieutenant’s sacrifice. “This guy, had a wife, he had a kid, and they [have] to live their life without him even though he’s there in spirit,” Mangolds says. “It’s just a constant reminder to take advantage of what you have because he was young when he died. He was only 25. You know life could end at any second, at any moment.”

Many active service members and veterans boast similar artwork on their arms, legs, backs and hands. Expressing a dedication words perhaps cannot, these bodily remembrances tell tales of loss, service, patriotism and resistance. Some of these stories, like Iraq veteran and Auburn native Joshua Wheeldon’s, are novels, unfolding over vast swaths of skin.

Listening to Wheeldon, 33, describe his tattoos is like listening to a man thumb through an old photo album. Unsure of where to start, he speaks first of a tattoo that mimics one his grandfather had. “My grandpa had that eagle on his forearm. And he was in the Navy in the ‘50s. Myself, I was in the Army from ’04 to ’09,” he says.

Another captures Wheeldon’s attention. “One of my friends got killed in Afghanistan so I got a yellow ribbon tattooed around my wrist with his name on it. And it’s, like, pulling a grenade pin.”

Later, he continues, “Then my great-uncle was a POW in World War II, so I have the POW and MIA flag on my arm.”

That’s just his left arm.

“And then my right arm: I have, like, my dad was in the Navy so I have King Neptune, and the ship my dad was on and an anchor,” Wheeldon says. He stops and summarizes the rest: “And a whole bunch of stuff like that.”

Perhaps Wheeldon’s most devastating tattoo is a simple figure on his finger. It’s a small but conspicuous 22 — the number of veterans who kill themselves every day in the United States, according to a 2012 report authored by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs. (The study has since come under question.)

“Four of my buddies killed themselves the year before last,” Wheeldon says.

Wheeldon’s tattoos help him remember their stories. “It’s a piece of you; you don’t want to forget. It’s something that will live with you forever.”

That’s how Monique Brown, who served 26 years in the Army, regards her tattoo of the Fallen Soldier Battle Cross, a battlefield monument fashioned from a rifle, a helmet and a pair of combat boots. Like her memories of her fellow soldiers, the permanent ink won’t fade.

“I will never forget these guys because every time I look at my arm, that will be there. And that will remind me of what I went through. But it will also remind me of … not bringing them home,” she says.

Sgt. Long, Brown says, was among those who didn’t make it home. While in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, Brown worked in the base’s dining facility, where she remembers setting aside special treats for the infantry soldiers going out on the wire (off-base).

“If we got special shakes, I would give them those,” she says. “And I would hold back the special protein bars for those guys.”

One day, Sgt. Long approached Brown. “He came to me with this look in his eye, I’ll never forget it, [it] kind of haunts me, and he said, ‘Sgt. Brown I just want to thank you for taking care of me and the guys so much, you always make sure we have what we need out there,’” recalls Brown, 50, of Renton, Wash.

That night communications on the base were blacked out, which generally indicates that someone has died or been injured. “And it turns out it was Sgt. Long,” Brown says. He had stepped on a pressure plate earlier that day, according to Brown. “And I can never forget that look in his eyes,” she says.

Monica McNeal, 55, will never forget her son Eric Ward. The tattoo on her wrist is another way for her to retain her connection to her son, who was just 19 when he was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Scrawled in the handwriting of her son’s high-school girlfriend, the tattoo reads “gan eagla” or “without fear” in Gaelic. Her son had the same phrase on his chest.

McNeal, of Edmonds, is the president of Washington’s chapter of American Gold Star Mothers.

“It’s [the tattoo] an opportunity for me to continue to educate Americans about the real costs of war and about a Gold Star Mom,” she says.

Andy Ribaudo’s tattoos provide a critique of war.

The veteran and activist, 28, who served in Iraq in 2010 andSouth Korea in 2012, sports a sleeve of bleak, black images that combine protest imagery and post-apocalyptic visions of a war-torn world. One piece is called “Anti-American Imperialism.”

“It’s a skull with its mouth wrapped into an American flag with rubble at the bottom, essentially representing the effects of our presence around the world and the effects of the wars and our interests,” says the Kent resident.

Some people shy away from the intensity of his experiences and message, Ribaudo says. “Citizens, nonveterans, always call for ‘support our vets, support our soldiers.’ And then once you start showing symptoms, or you open up about your experiences, they tend to walk away, or say I’ve got to go,” he says.

A small tattoo can make a big statement.

Ritch Green, one of five tattoo artists brought to U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay through the Morale, Welfare and Recreation staff, tattoos a commemorative picture of a cross on the shoulder blade of a Joint Task Force Guantanamo Trooper, June 16, 2008.DoD photo

“Women aren’t often acknowledged as having served,” Elizabeth Estabrooks says. “And, you know, people don’t think of women as veterans, and people don’t think of veterans as women.”

Estabrooks, the Oregon Women Veterans Coordinator, was stationed in Germany from 1977 to 1980 and was one of the first to undergo gender integrated basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

“It was a huge experiment, I later found out,” says the Portland resident.

Estabrooks, 58, stayed in the Army for three years before discharging, in part, she says, because of how women were treated. “There were some pretty strict limits on women serving back then,” Estabrooks says. “There were still a lot of jobs we weren’t allowed to do.”

Now, on her shoulder, Estabrooks has a tattoo of worn pink Army boots, draped in pearls and dog tags.

“Here’s my message to the world,” she says referring to the icon. “I’m a woman, I was in the Army, and I proudly served.”


©2017 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Seven of the twelve Soldiers participating in the Army National Guard Military Funeral Honors Level 2 course at Fort Indiantown Gap practice folding the flag April 25. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Zane Craig)

Retired Army Master Sgt. Mark Allen has died 10 years after he was shot in the head while searching for deserter Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan.

Allen died on Saturday at the age of 46, according to funeral information posted online.

Read More Show Less

For U.S. service members who have fought alongside the Kurds, President Donald Trump's decision to approve repositioning U.S. forces in Syria ahead of Turkey's invasion is a naked betrayal of valued allies.

"I am ashamed for the first time in my career," one unnamed special operator told Fox News Jennifer Griffin.

In a Twitter thread that went viral, Griffin wrote the soldier told her the Kurds were continuing to support the United States by guarding tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners even though Turkey had nullified an arrangement under which U.S. and Turkish troops were conducting joint patrols in northeastern Syria to allow the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, to withdraw.

"The Kurds are sticking by us," the soldier told Griffin. "No other partner I have ever dealt with would stand by us."

Read More Show Less
Defense Secretary Mark Esper (Associated Press photo)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday he and the Pentagon will comply with House Democrats' impeachment inquiry subpoena, but it'll be on their own schedule.

"We will do everything we can to cooperate with the Congress," Esper said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Just in the last week or two, my general counsel sent out a note — as we typically do in these situations — to ensure documents are retained."

Read More Show Less

Most of the U.S. troops in Syria are being moved out of the country as Turkish forces and their Arab allies push further into Kurdish territory than originally expected, Task & Purpose has learned.

Roughly 1,000 U.S. troops are withdrawing from Syria, leaving a residual force of between 100 and 150 service members at the Al Tanf garrison, a U.S. official said.

"I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday's edition of CBS News' "Face the Nation."'

Read More Show Less

BEIRUT/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Women affiliated with Islamic State and their children fled en masse from a camp where they were being held in northern Syria on Sunday after shelling by Turkish forces in a five-day-old offensive, the region's Kurdish-led administration said.

Turkey's cross-border attack in northern Syria against Kurdish forces widened to target the town of Suluk which was hit by Ankara's Syrian rebel allies. There were conflicting accounts on the outcome of the fighting.

Turkey is facing threats of possible sanctions from the United States unless it calls off the incursion. Two of its NATO allies, Germany and France, have said they are halting weapons exports to Turkey. The Arab League has denounced the operation.

Read More Show Less