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Vet ink: Military-inspired Tattoos

A unique military exhibit at the Clark County Historical Museum in Vancouver tells the story of 11 veterans from different eras through the ink on their bodies

Kate Singh Army medic Christian Vetter’s tattoo features a tribute to combat medicine. “I like being able to carry them with me. I see them as my totem.”

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VANCOUVER, Wash. - Jeremy Hubbard's best friend and two cousins literally have his back. Their names and faces are tattooed there, along with the dates they were killed in action.

Friends call Hubbard modest and unpretentious. As a veteran, he understands the sacrifices that accompany a military career, but he doesn't talk about his time serving in a field artillery unit. He's never seen combat.

"I'd much rather talk about them," Hubbard said, pointing to a large photograph of the tattoos that decorate his back. "I'm proud of what I did, but it was nothing compared to what they did and what they went through. It makes me want to do better in my everyday life - just to try to be half the men they were."

Hubbard and his memorial tattoos are part of a new exhibit at the Clark County Historical Museum in Vancouver, Wash. "Vet Ink: Military-Inspired Tattoos" features 11 veterans representing seven decades of military service and the unique stories behind the ink on their bodies.

"This is very personal," museum executive director Susan Tissot said. "It's fantastic, but it's heavy. For veterans themselves, it's part of that healing process."

For Staff Sergeant Victoria Parker, the Fallen Soldier Battle Cross on her left biceps accompanies the initials of five brothers-in-arms lost during her second deployment to Iraq in 2007. She was a member of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's 571st Military Police Company, 504th Military Police Battalion, which served a 15-month tour during some of the most heated combat of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Her grandfather's name is also there, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War.

"All my vets are going to go on my arm somewhere," Parker said. "I'm never without family."

After returning from deployment, Parker transferred from active duty to a reserve unit to find the time to go to college. She often found her thoughts drifting back to her service overseas and the friends she lost there.

"You don't have time to process stuff when you get home. You carry the weight of it, but you never deal with it," she said. "The problem was when I got off active duty, I didn't constantly have work to keep me going and occupy my mind. So, I had to start dealing with stuff."

But her tattoo is more than a permanent reminder of the friends she lost. She also uses it to educate the public and create awareness.

"Being female, I get people asking me if (the initials) are my kids. If I was a guy, that wouldn't even be a question," Parker said. "We've been in war for over a decade. This is not an uncommon symbol. It's a symbol of our nation."

Keeping memories alive

Not all of the tattoos depicted in the exhibit are categorized as memorials. There are also patriotic and spiritual tattoos, along with tattoos that represent military units or branches of service. For some, the time between getting the tattoo and the military service that inspired them is more than 30 years.

That's the case for Richard Alvarez, a former Army specialist who served from 1968 to 1971, including nine months in Vietnam. As he was nearing 60, he decided he wanted a tattoo, but one with meaning.

"I decided I wanted the unit crest to commemorate my tour in Vietnam," Alvarez said, whose daughter is married to a Soldier stationed at JBLM. "It took a long time to make friends with Vietnam."

Alvarez was attached to the 504th MP Bn., the same unit as Parker's. It wasn't until opening night of the exhibit that the two made the connection. Parker saw Alvarez's tattoo and instantly the two bonded, unified by serving in the same unit, albeit almost four decades apart.

"It's this tie between everyone," he said.

David Hancock's tattoo also identifies his dual-branch military service, but it reveals something else about him: he's a "Looney Tunes" fan. His tattoo shows Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny walking side by side, with "U.S. Army" across the top of the tattoo, and "U.S. Marines" across the bottom. Both branches are close to his heart because of his combined reserve service in the Army and the Marines, in addition to his nine-year active duty Army career.

"I liked the idea of having the cartoon characters linked with the seriousness of the military," he said. "It's like the Army and Marines are buddies."

A healing process

Photographer Kate Singh donated her time and services to the exhibit, and as a retired Army nurse, felt honored when she was approached about the project.

"I was so excited," she said. "It's a way of immortalizing a legacy of what (these veterans) did and a chance to tell a different story."

Her pride in the project is evident. She said the exhibit offers veterans the recognition they never received in the military.

"They did their three or four years and then they got out. It was a duty. They didn't do it for recognition," Singh said. "Now, we can highlight their tattoos and the stories they lived."

And for Singh, the overall theme returns to healing.

"Some of them are still dealing with survivor guilt, so to be able to do this is taking a step forward toward healing," she said. "It's been unifying."

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