Tattoos and the Army: a long and colorful tradition

By Staff Sgt. Stephanie van GeeteSeptember 19, 2009

A Work in Progress
1 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Sgt. Hugh Fry shows off his memorial sleeve tattoo, which he plans to finish with the phrase "OEF 07-08," mountains to signify the Afghan terrain, and his unit crest. Fry calls the piece "something to remind me where I've been, and who's been there w... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Silent Tribute
2 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – While some Soldiers get tattoos where anyone can see them, pieces like this tribute on Spc. Steven Baker's back are meant to remain private. "I wanted to get something done, but I didn't want it to be blatantly out in the open for everyone else to se... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Sapper Pride
3 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
The Mighty 10th Mountain
4 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Staff Sgt. Spencer Bowers, force protection noncommissioned officer in charge for the 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, proudly shows off his 10th Mountain Division patch tattoo. Bowers had the symbol inked on his ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
5 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – First Sergeant Aki Paylor, Echo Company, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, had the Warrior Ethos tattooed on his arm while on leave from his current deployment to Iraq. "The Army is not just a job; it's a way of life,... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq -- Tattoos and the military have a long and colorful history. Modern pop culture credits the Navy with introducing the art of tattooing to the United States in the early 1900s, when Sailors returning from distant lands displayed their skin-art souvenirs.

Although the times have changed, the military's love affair with tattoos has not. Today, it seems, you couldn't throw a rock into an Army formation without hitting a Soldier with at least one tattoo.

"I would say, across combat arms especially, probably a good 90% of everyone has a tattoo," said Staff Sgt. James Campbell, a tattooed infantryman and platoon sergeant with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.

While styles and themes vary greatly depending on the tastes of each individual, there are definite trends among Army tattoo enthusiasts, with a large number of tattooed Soldiers sporting Americana- and military-themed ink. That might not seem surprising until you consider that very few civilians walk around with their company's corporate logo permanently etched on their skin.

First Sergeant Aki Paylor, Echo Company, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 10th CAB senior enlisted advisor, believes that for many Soldiers, tattoos are a way to express themselves as individuals - especially when their day-to-day lives revolve around conforming to Army standards. But when military service has shaped a large portion of your life, it is only natural that who you are and the experiences you have had would be best represented by military images.

"Every tattoo I have on my body says something about who I am, where I'm from, or the things I've been through," explained Paylor, who got the Warrior Ethos tattooed on his left forearm while home on leave in April. "I've got 16 years in the service. After this deployment, I'll have 37 months in combat. The Army is not just a job; it's a way of life. For me, the Warrior Ethos - that's who I am."

Paylor's tattoo could be classified as "pride in service," one of four themes commonly spotted among tattooed troops. In addition to the eagle and U.S. flag tattoos falling under the "patriotic" category, many Soldiers use permanent ink to showcase their pride in a specific unit or occupational specialty.

For Staff Sgt. Spencer Bowers, force protection noncommissioned officer in charge for the 10th CAB's 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, the 10th Mountain Division is "home."

"I've been with the 10th Mountain Division for over 10 years - the longest I've been with any unit," Bowers explained.

After deploying for the first time to Afghanistan with the Division's aviation brigade in 2006-2007, Bowers had the 10th Mountain patch tattooed on his right shoulder, where Soldiers wear the combat patch on their uniforms.

"Throughout my service, I always said whoever I deployed with first, I was going to tattoo that unit's patch on my body, kind of as a symbol of unity and allegiance to that unit. And I did it," Bowers said. "You always dance with the one that brought you, and the one that brought me is the mighty 10th Mountain."

Staff Sgt. Freddy Soza, a combat engineer with Fox Company 2-10, finds his pride in being a Sapper - so much pride, in fact, that he recently got an engineer castle tattooed on his chest over his heart.

"It's something to signify my service and being a combat engineer," Soza explained. "I've always wanted to get it done. The camaraderie we have as engineers, the way we's a source of pride."

Campbell sees this type of tattoo a lot, especially among Soldiers in combat arms.

"Your military tattoos on guys who are in combat arms [military occupational specialties] really have to do with pride," Campbell agreed. "Most people don't fall into that MOS when it's combat arms; usually it's something they've wanted to do for a long time. When you finally get to your first unit after going through the rigorous training, you have a sense of pride. These tattoos are like a badge of honor."

The last category of military tattoo is regrettably becoming the most popular. Since the start of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, more and more servicemembers are getting memorial tattoos. For the many Soldiers today who have lost their friends and comrades, these pieces serve as a silent tribute when words are not enough.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about my best friend," Campbell said, referring to Sgt. Mike O'Neal, killed in action while fighting in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2004. Campbell has a four-leaf clover and the initials "M.O." tattooed on his left forearm, surrounded by the words "Gone but Not Forgotten."

"It takes a lot to get somebody's name or initials tattooed; that's forever, it's not going anywhere. But that's exactly why it's there - because I want to remember him, forever," Campbell explained.

Sgt. Hugh Fry, an infantryman in Campbell's platoon, is working on a memorial half-sleeve covering his left forearm.

"I have a tattered American flag, with the names of most of the guys we lost out there; a field cross for one of my best friends that died; and a purple heart," Fry explained. "The field cross, I wanted it to be kind of geared toward my best friend - I wanted a piece just for him. The flag was because that's what they give to the families; I didn't get to be there for the funerals, so that was my version."

Fry plans on finishing the piece with the phrase "OEF 07-08," mountains in the background to signify the terrain of Afghanistan, and his unit crest.

"It's something to remind me where I've been, and who's been there with me," summed up Fry, who is planning on ending his term of service when he redeploys this year.

While Soldiers like Campbell and Fry got their tributes tattooed where people can see them, and welcome questions from strangers - "I don't mind if people ask - they made the ultimate sacrifice, and they should be remembered for that," Fry said - some troops keep their tattoos as a private reminder, like the piece on Spc. Steven Baker's back.

"I have three Soldier's crosses on my back with the names of three Soldiers I lost on my last deployment," Baker, a Fox Company infantryman, explained. "I wanted to get something done, but I didn't want it to be blatantly out in the open for everyone else to see. But every time I want to reflect and think back on them, I can look in the mirror and remember."

Tattoos can also be a sign of closure for some troops - it may help Soldiers move on with their lives knowing that their buddies will never be forgotten.

"It's's not going away," Baker said of his piece, which he got "pretty soon after I came to terms with what had happened."

Remembrance is the theme common to most Soldiers' service-related tattoos. Whether they are getting tattoos to remember the good times or the bad, friends made or lost, inked Soldiers carry with them a permanent reminder of specific, often life-changing events in their lives.

"To me, it's something to look back on," said Sgt. Jeremy Leak, a force protection sergeant with 3-10 GSAB who has the words "to remember" tattooed in Arabic on his ankle as a tribute to two friends killed in Iraq. Leak said he plans to get another tattoo when he gets back to the U.S. to commemorate this deployment.

"As you get older, you might forget the small things," he explained. "If you have a tattoo of that time in your life, when you're 60 and you look at that's kind of like a time capsule that you put on yourself."