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

Lifestyle
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.

In this June 16, 2018 photo, Taliban fighters greet residents in the Surkhroad district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Associated Press/Rahmat Gul)

While the U.S. military wants to keep roughly 8,600 troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban's deputy leader has just made clear that his group wants all U.S. service members to leave the country as part of any peace agreement.

"The withdrawal of foreign forces has been our first and foremost demand," Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in a story for the New York Times on Thursday.

Read More
U.S. soldiers inspect the site where an Iranian missile hit at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq January 13, 2020. (REUTERS/John Davison)

In the wee hours of Jan. 8, Tehran retaliated over the U.S. killing of Iran's most powerful general by bombarding the al-Asad air base in Iraq.

Among the 2,000 troops stationed there was U.S. Army Specialist Kimo Keltz, who recalls hearing a missile whistling through the sky as he lay on the deck of a guard tower. The explosion lifted his body - in full armor - an inch or two off the floor.

Keltz says he thought he had escaped with little more than a mild headache. Initial assessments around the base found no serious injuries or deaths from the attack. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, "All is well!"

The next day was different.

"My head kinda felt like I got hit with a truck," Keltz told Reuters in an interview from al-Asad air base in Iraq's western Anbar desert. "My stomach was grinding."

Read More
A U.S. military vehicle runs a Russian armored truck off the road in Syria near the Turkish border town of Qamishli (Video screencap)

A video has emerged showing a U.S. military vehicle running a Russian armored truck off the road in Syria after it tried to pass an American convoy.

Questions still remain about the incident, to include when it occurred, though it appears to have taken place on a stretch of road near the Turkish border town of Qamishli, according to The War Zone.

Read More
(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

We are women veterans who have served in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Our service – as aviators, ship drivers, intelligence analysts, engineers, professors, and diplomats — spans decades. We have served in times of peace and war, separated from our families and loved ones. We are proud of our accomplishments, particularly as many were earned while immersed in a military culture that often ignores and demeans women's contributions. We are veterans.

Yet we recognize that as we grew as leaders over time, we often failed to challenge or even question this culture. It took decades for us to recognize that our individual successes came despite this culture and the damage it caused us and the women who follow in our footsteps. The easier course has always been to tolerate insulting, discriminatory, and harmful behavior toward women veterans and service members and to cling to the idea that 'a few bad apples' do not reflect the attitudes of the whole.

Recent allegations that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie allegedly sought to intentionally discredit a female veteran who reported a sexual assault at a VA medical center allow no such pretense.

Read More
A cup of coffee during "tea time" discussions between the U.S. Air Force and Japanese Self-Defense Forces at Misawa Air Base, Japan, Feb. 14, 2018 (Air Force photo / Tech. Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)

Survival expert and former Special Air Service commando Edward "Bear" Grylls made meme history for drinking his own urine to survive his TV show, Man vs. Wild. But the United States Air Force did Bear one better recently, when an Alaska-based airman peed in an office coffee maker.

While the circumstances of the bladder-based brew remain a mystery, the incident was written up in a newsletter written by the legal office of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on February 13, a base spokesman confirmed to Task & Purpose.

Read More