War Paint by Kyle Cassidy
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Tattoo Culture the Armed Forces. For many servicemen, the battle is over, but the ink lives on. Thousands of soldiers have chosen to commemorate their military service through tattoos, a custom as old as war paint itself. Yet military tattoos go far beyond the usual anchor and eagle clichs, and are often as complex and varied as the military experience. For the first time, documentary photographer Kyle Cassidy has sought out veterans who marked their military service with a tattoo and they are shown here in all their glory fresh, faded, sometimes intertwined with wounds, physical and otherwise. And the stories behind these tattoos.
Me and my brother during a training exercise
This book hits really close to home for me. I enlisted in 2004 and served during both the war in Afghanistan and the one in Iraq. The missions I worked were incredibly stressful and I saw, did, and read about a lot of things that people who have never been in the military just can’t understand. I could tell you the stories, I could try to explain the worry and the nightmares, and though you might sympathize, you’ll probably never really get it.
These experiences were like ropes and each one bound those I served with closer together until, in a surprisingly short amount of time, we became family. Like all families, we had our ups and downs. We partied together, we laughed together, hell, sometimes we even wanted to kill each other. And when we lost one of our own, we mourned together and we healed together.
One of the other things that we did together was get tattoos. I got three while I served and each time I had my friends with me. They laughed at me while I sat and cringed beneath the needle and then told jokes to distract me as the pain progressed. I did the same for them when it was their turn. Like those in this book, each of my tattoos has a story behind it, a reason for why I chose it and why I got it when I did. The same is true for my friends. The same is true for a lot of servicemen.
The tattoo culture in the military is a long standing one. Tattoos are a way to remember fallen comrades, a way to remember the battles you fought in, the ship you served on, the unit you fought with, the people, the lifestyle, the commitment.
When you get out, tattoos become a way of identifying those that can understand the things you’ve been through. The people that wear them are part of a larger family, one that transcends missions, units, service and rank. That grizzled old WWII Vet with the USMC tattoo? He’s part of my family. That young kid with the shaved head and the “Frogmen” tattoo, just back from his first Seal mission? He’s part of my family too.
I may not exchange my stories with strangers on the street, I may just give them a polite nod and a “Sir”, but that’s all they’ll need to recognize me as one of their own.
I’ve been out for nearly five years and to this day my closest friends are those I served with. Some are still in, spread out across the globe as they work their new missions. Some have gone off to college. Some, like myself, have rejoined the civilian workforce but still serve a service. This book reminds me of the best times I had with those friends. It makes me miss them. It makes me miss the mission.
If you’ve served, you should read this book. If you haven’t, you should still read this book. It might give you a better idea of what I’m trying to explain here. It will also give you a glimpse of the family I’m part of.