Cutting through War Fatigue with the Power of Ink

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Army Cpl. Paul Bell's tattoo he calls, "My version of Hell."

TIME’s photo blog, LightBox, has published a stunning series of photographs of tattoos troops get to commemorate their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. That kind of body art is a little-noticed trend among the small percentage of Americans serving in the military.

In fact, TIME did it to help shine some light on the growing divide between the military and the civilian population, one of the most important and troubling stories out there. I’ve never seen the issue so deftly and thoughtfully explored than in the slam-dunk TIME cover story by Mark Thompson this week. I devoured it the second it landed on my desk. Please read it.

I’m glad TIME gave Thompson the chance, because the sad truth is that there is very little incentive for us in the press to write about the military or veterans these days. So few people care. Many folks, perhaps understandably, have war fatigue. They don’t want to hear about it anymore. And the fact that about one percent of the U.S. population is now serving in the military – the lowest percentage ever in the history of our country – means fewer readers than ever have a reason to care. There is no personal connection.

Another little-discussed fact: we in the press get detailed reports about what stories hum online; what is getting the clicks. And while it’s not right, the war beat is dead. The veterans’ beat is even more dead. (God bless the Thompsons and C.J. Chivers of the world, who continue to haunt that underworld, seemingly undaunted). For the most part, reporters and editors very much want to write about what they think is important, but we are also acutely aware that we work in a very fragile business.

But at least on paper, part of journalism is supposed to be about public service. And the divide is so stark between veterans and the rest of us, sometimes I feel like we don’t speak the same language. So I’m always looking for a fresh, provocative way to serve as translator as best as I can.

Many of these men and women who return from Iraq and Afghanistan get these commemorative tattoos to mark their experiences. I’ve seen some incredible – and incredibly powerful – ink over the years. Last summer I was chatting with Steve Robinson, a retired Army Ranger who has worked extensively with veterans. Robinson suggested a tattoo photo shoot. I pitched it to TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel, who immediately endorsed it. TIME’s Director of Photography Kira Pollack smartly picked Peter Hapak for the shoot.

I contacted Al Herman, who has been running Capitol Ink on Georgia Avenue just north of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, since 1992. Herman, who treats his veteran clients like a doting father, opened his doors to Hapak and me for a day of shooting last August.

In the pictures, Army Sgt. Rudy McGoy, who fought in Afghanistan in 2009, has scrawled on his back a tattoo of a Bible verse about fighting in the desert. The tattoo is surrounded by shrapnel scars. Staff Sgt. Brad Fasnacht, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, commemorates his work with the 44th Engineer Battalion with a tattoo on his forearm of a helmeted soldier. The soldier’s face is a skull.

In the text, I did not provide much in the way of explanations from the troops about what experiences drove them to choose their tattoos. I hope that viewers will explore that vacuum with their imagination. Perhaps some people would at least try to understand what it might be like to go to war and then come back to a country that doesn’t seem to know or care.