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Tattoos Carry Special Meaning on Memorial Day

My two Marines are typical of so many other Marines: they have tattoos. And, as one of them patiently explained to me one day when I asked why they had to have so many, “Because, Dad, each one means something special.”


Who am I to question young men who have been in combat, I asked myself. “Go ahead, then, and enjoy your ink,” I told him.


One of my Marines has the following tattooed across his ribs: “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.” It’s a line from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, written in 1601. Who knew that hundreds of years later my son would be such a scholar? His high school English teachers would be amazed.


He also carries the image of a large Celtic cross and an outline – in red – of his home state of Tennessee.


My other Marine wears an Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem over his heart and a Devil Dog reference on his right bicep. And then on his back, just above the beltline, is a simple tattoo: another Marine’s last name. And that Marine – a big, strong high school football star from the upper Midwest -- has my son’s name similarly inked on his back. They survived a tough, stomach-tightening assignment in Iraq together and vowed they would always have one another’s backs. Literally. And so they put it in writing one day at a Yakuza tattoo parlor in Japan, sipping the rice wine offered by the mobster on the next table who was there to add to his full body tattoo. He told them – through the shop proprieter – he respected men of honor.


A retired admiral I once knew sniffed at the thought of tattoos, saying they are mainly the providence of enlisted personnel and not officers. I told him while not everyone injects ink into their skin, everyone carries a mark of some kind, and the mark of snobbery was not a nice one. We haven’t spoken in a long time.


Like my one son said a long time ago, tattoos mean something special to the person who wears them. One son wears a cross to proclaim his faith, a map of his state to tell where he is from and an old line from a Shakespearean play to state his attitude in combat. The other sports the iconic image of the Corps to which he has dedicated himself, as well as the name of a friend he knows will always be there for him – a pact first written in blood and then confirmed in ink. I have to agree those all have special meanings.


I once knew an old man who wore a crudely applied tattoo of letters and numbers on his forearm. He wore it he said so he would always remember how the Nazis murdered his family in Poland long ago. I always thought that no tattoo could ever have more meaning. I was wrong.


The other day one of my sons told me about another tattoo, worn on the arm of one of his buddies, who finished his active duty commitment last week. That Marine, who won a Purple Heart in Afghanistan last year, carries in ink the names of the ten Marines who died during their deployment. Their names, of course, are carried in the hearts of all the surviving Marines, but now – at least on one Marine’s arm – they’re carried where everyone may see them.


I can think of no greater tribute on Memorial Day.

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Comment by 1~ucme (Laura), VPMM & Volunteer on May 31, 2011 at 3:43pm
While I don't care for the ink, my son having "Never Forget" (each word on the inside of each wrist) in memory of his fallen brothers and "Freedom" which he has truly fought for, I do understand and appreciate them more after these experiences he's battled through.
Comment by acpmom on May 30, 2011 at 7:10pm

Thank you, Double Dad.  I was reading this out loud to my husband and was just barely able to finish it before my voice completely broke and the computer screen disappeared through the tears.  My son carries three tatoos - the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor with the words "in hoc signo vinces" (in this symbol is victory), a celtic cross, and a verse from the Bible, "I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me".  My husband still doesn't like tatoos, but he definitely understands!

Comment by 1~Good2GoMom (Barb) on May 30, 2011 at 12:33pm

Wow Double Dad - thanks for this essay.  It put's my son's tattoos in a whole new light.  He ran out and got a shamrock (with some Gaelic writing) underneath it on his back before he ever even enlisted. Oh, and we are NOT this really made no sense at all to me.  His shipping to bootcamp was even tougher because he had to sit at MEPS while some Marines at a headquarters somewhere were hurriedly researching the Gaelic saying and making sure it didn't mean "Death to Infidels (or some such nonsense).  He swears it says "Isle of Destiny."  Dave sat next to a young man (trying to enlist in the Army) with a swastika tattooed on his chest; he was sent home.


Now my son is IRR and has his girlfriend's name tattooed on his upper arm (sheesh I sure hope they actually end up married and stay together or this could prove to be a painful lesson!)


I'm in awe of the story you told about the Purple Heart Marine who wears the names of his 10 brothers-in-arms who died during deployment.  We may try to remember and give thanks on a daily basis that there are men and women who are willing to lay down their lives for the rest of us.  But these Marines carry those memories and thoughts in their hearts & minds and now even on their bodies.  God bless them all.

Comment by Double Dad on May 30, 2011 at 12:26pm

Well Julie, you've got me stumped. But they certainly sound colorful -- and no doubt mean something special to your Marine. And give him time, but I'm willing to wager some day -- maybe not as soon as you might wish -- he'll once again be proclaiming his mission is to bring joy to the world.


As far as Jake even knowing a little bit of Shakespeare -- well, I was amazed. But then sitting on my book shelves are two historical novels he gave me, one about the Peloponnesian War and the other about Alexander the Great's march into Afghanistan.


Robinaar: you are so right about the Marines commitment to one another.


Full disclosure time: The Marine with the Tennessee tattoo also has the words "Tennessee Boy" inked inside the outline. When his brother heard about it, he said, "Tell him I'm getting one just like it, but mine will say 'Tennessee MAN.' "

Comment by paraqac (Margie) on May 30, 2011 at 1:19am

Oh do you make me laugh out loud like this...!  My son has a tattoo but only one..but he is proud of it since it was earned...only those invited could have it.  I don't know what Brian will do...I think he might be a bit frugal in the body art his brother has blossemed in his artistic ability and it continually amazes me what he is capable of...I just don't know where that will fit into the Corps after he graduates from the Citadel...but I could see him designing his own tattoos.  And now that I have been to a tattoo parlor I know it's not the 'den of iniquity' that I thought lurked inside! 


Comment by 17smom on May 29, 2011 at 4:48pm


mmm.  So what does it mean when a Marine's tattoos are almost exclusively characters from a video game?  It started simply enough with a green mushroom on the curve on shoulder, which apparently made you go faster -- a useful talent for a Marine.  Then various other characters, including a poison plant, Mario, and finally, the fearsome enemy Bowser.  Shortly before deployment, two red mushrooms, one on each ankle (ouch), which give you extra lives.  And, as the apparently traditional pre-deployment tattoo,  Princess Peach, an incredibly sappy, overly sweet princess with blonde hair and a pink ball gown.


He and one female cousin, she in the Army, having matching black sheep on the back of one calf.  Because the other shoulder was still bare, an actually beautiful bull is inked, because he's a Taurus.


I have no idea what they mean.  He refuses to take himself seriously?  He's whistling in the dark?  He used to say that his job was to bring joy to the world...not so much any more, sadly.


I still admire the Shakespeare quote tatto, Double Dad.  You should be proud your love of language made its way on to your son's skin.



Comment by Robinaar on May 29, 2011 at 3:43pm

Thanks for posting this. I have to admit that I'm an old fashioned Mom, and the tattoos were a shock to my system. I have to laugh at myself though.  Here was my big, rough, tough Marine calling to tell me he had his first tattoo.  He said "Mom, I got a tattoo," like it was something he was worried about telling me.  Maybe if he was in college I would have been annoyed but instead I thought, if I can get through this deployment--these tattoos are absolutely nothing!  And you are right.  Marine tatoos symbolize a deep commitment, often a commitment to each other.  And that is a very good thing even if they might look a bit scary to fuddy duddy Mom.  


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