Inked-up Veterans Tell Stories of War Through Their Tattoos

Former Navy torpedoman Patrick Meagher shows off tattoos that he got in 1971. (James Tensuan/KQED)

If you’ve ever wondered what someone’s tattoos meant but were afraid to ask, two dozen California military veterans are sharing their bodies and their stories online in hopes they can make you less hesitant.

The "War Ink" multimedia project launches today. It’s meant to bridge a gap between veterans and the public.

Iraq War veteran Zak Bass shows off his tattoos, including one of the War Ink logo. (Left: Courtesy War Ink, Right: James Tensuan/KQED)
Iraq War veteran Zak Bass shows off his tattoos, including one of the War Ink logo. (Left: Courtesy War Ink, Right: James Tensuan/KQED)

Jose Cruz, who served four tours with the Marines in Iraq, had his four tattoos photographed extensively for the website. They include a cross with initials of some fallen comrades, the Marine "Semper Fi" motto, his own last name, and a tribal tattoo with an angel and skull.

"Those tattoos keep me grounded as a person and as reminders of where I’ve been, what I’ve done, who I am, and also help in deciding who I’m gonna be,” said Cruz, who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, but has lived in California since he was 7.

William Glazier shows off his tattoo that pays tribute to the 75th Ranger Regiment. (James Tensuan/KQED)
William Glazier shows off his tattoo that pays tribute to the 75th Ranger Regiment. (James Tensuan/KQED)

“We don’t get these tattoos just because we want to be flashy, or because we want to be cool. These tattoos actually mean something to us," Cruz said. "It’s a way of expressing those stories, those experiences, sometimes even emotions that are a lot easier when they are portrayed in a picture instead of actually using words.”

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It’s not just photos. Warink.org features videos and audio testimonials of soldiers talking about themselves and their tattoos. The goal is to let veterans tell their stories on their own terms.

"War Ink emerged out of a need to recognize veterans’ service and sacrifices, and to bridge the divide between the veteran and civilian communities," according to the project's website. The focus on tattoos functions as a "springboard for California veterans to share their stories."

Iraq War veteran Mike Ergo poses with his young daughter, Adeline. (Courtesy War Ink)
Iraq War veteran Mike Ergo poses with his young daughter, Adeline. (Courtesy War Ink)
Ron "Doc" Riveira served with the California Army National Guards 184th Air Assault as a senior medic. (Courtesy War Ink)
Ron "Doc" Riveira served with the California Army National Guard's 184th Air Assault as a senior medic. (Courtesy War Ink)

Mike Ergo, who did two tours of duty in Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, is now a social worker and readjustment counselor for Veterans Affairs. He participated in the War Ink project to help find common ground between veteran and civilian communities.

"My hope is that the idea of letting veterans tell their stories ... can avoid putting us in the stereotypical lights of heroes, perpetrators or broken people who need pity," Ergo said.

“These people come back from war with all of these experiences inside them and then they go into a world where there is no place for any of those experiences," said former combat medic Jason Deitch, who created War Ink along with Chris Brown, senior community library manager for the Contra Costa County library.

The library received grants for the project from Cal Humanities and the Pacific Library Partnership, and teamed up with a cooperative of more than 20 library systems throughout the state.

“We wanted to use their own stories, in their own words, to tell the experience of our veterans,” Brown said.