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Honoring the fallen in skin, ink

A new generation of Marines finds body art is the best memorial to their comrades killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

April 02, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

FALLBROOK, CALIF. — The anniversary of Marine Cpl. Brian R. St. Germain's death in Iraq was approaching, and Gunnery Sgt. Jason Alderman was making sure his buddy would never be forgotten. He was getting a tattoo in his honor.

The design was one that Alderman had chosen after looking at a Marine-themed website, The 11-inch tattoo being permanently inked on his left calf, near his shrapnel wound, included a Marine Ka-Bar knife, the Marine eagle, globe and anchor emblem and the inscription "SAINT 4-02-06."

Alderman, 31, said he wanted to show the tattoo to St. Germain's parents to assure them that their son would be remembered.

Marine Corps culture holds that Marines who die in combat must never be forgotten. An increasing number of Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton and other bases are living that ethic by getting memorial tattoos to comrades killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

St. Germain, a mechanic and martial arts instructor, died in a vehicle accident outside the base at Al Asad. The Rhode Island native was 22 and on his second combat tour in Iraq.

Alderman identified the body but missed the memorial service for St. Germain and the others who died in the accident because he developed an eye problem and had to be hospitalized. It's been a source of disappointment and some guilt.

"He was strong all the way through," Alderman said of St. Germain at the tattoo parlor Thursday night. "That's how I remember him. He was a great Marine."

Tattoos have long been an integral, although unofficial, part of the Marine Corps. But the widespread preference for memorial tattoos may prove to be a distinguishing mark of this generation of Marines.

"Before Iraq, guys wanted all sorts of crazy stuff," said Kraig Santos, proprietor of Fallbrook Tattoo, where Alderman was getting his tattoo. "Now it's all crosses and angels -- memorial stuff."

Some of the tattoos list the names of the dead, others include mournful sayings such as "Never Forget," "Fallen But Not Forgotten," and "R.I.P." Some tattoos are meant to remember a particularly popular or heroic Marine.

Some Marines began designing their memorial tattoos when they were still in Iraq. Legend holds that the top three desires of young Marines returning from Iraq are a new motorcycle, a new tattoo and female companionship.

"They come in here with their own ideas about memorials," said Dan Kuns, owner of Pairadice Tattoo, outside the base at Twentynine Palms. "Everything has to be perfect. Every little bit means something to them, reminds them of the Marine who died."

When Cpl. Jason Dunham died in 2004 after diving on a grenade to save his buddies -- an act for which he received the Medal of Honor -- several members of his platoon from Twentynine Palms got tattoos. Some had his name inked on their skin, others the date of his death, still others an ace of spades superimposed over a skull -- like Dunham's own tattoo.

At Camp Pendleton, Cpl. Christopher Shelhamer, recuperating from a sniper wound, has the names of five Marines killed in Fallouja on his back. "I want my guys with me, always," he said.

Cpl. Brian J. Reimers, 21, has what he calls his Lost Brothers tattoo on his upper left arm to honor the 11 Marines in his battalion killed in Fallouja in 2006. "Every time the needle went in, it hurt," he said. "But I thought about their sacrifice and how a little bit of pain doesn't compare to that."

Many of the survivors of the terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut have tattoos that say, "Oct. 23,1983. Beirut, Lebanon. 241." The 241 refers to the number of service personnel who died in the blast. When two Marines wearing the Beirut tattoo meet, they share an immediate bond that needs no words.

Marine leaders tinker with traditions at their peril, never more so than when dealing with tattoos.

When Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, visited with Marines in Fallouja before Christmas, one of the first questions from the troops was about a possible change in regulations involving tattoos.

"I love that question," he told the gathering. "It's one of the most popular in the Marine Corps."

Conway said the policy would ban only new tattoos of a garish and visible nature or in areas of the body that are visible to civilians when Marines are off base -- on the neck, below the wrist or near the ankle. Senior enlisted leadership suggested the change, which became effective Sunday, as a way to protect the corps' public image.

Nothing in the new policy would prohibit Marines from honoring their dead comrades with tattoos, Conway assured the troops at Camp Fallouja. A cheer went up from the more than 1,000 Marines and sailors assembled in an auditorium where Saddam Hussein once lectured his conscripts.

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