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Face of Defense: Tattoos Tell Story of Soldier’s Loyalties, Losses, Dreams

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

EN ROUTE TO DENVER, May 12, 2009 – The 22-year-old soldier, dressed down in a black T-shirt and jeans on a flight to his new unit at Fort Carson, Colo., is the face of the 21,000 additional troops flowing into Afghanistan as part of the new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.

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The heavily tattooed arm of Army Cpl. “KC” reveal the history, loyalties and dreams of a soldier who’s seen two combat deployments during four and a half years of service and is preparing for another one, to Afghanistan, in June. DoD photo by Donna Miles

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But it’s his muscular arms, heavily adorned with tattoos as they cradle a portable video game system on his lap, that tell the true story of where he’s been, what he’s done and what he dreams for the future.

Army Cpl. “KC” – who asked to be referred to only by his initials to avoid making waves at his gaining unit – has seen a lot since heading off to Army basic training exactly one month after his high school graduation in Sacramento, Calif.

He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, a tough-minded but “pretty cool” Marine who died just four months before KC raised his right hand and swore to defend the United States and its interests. His dad, too, is a Vietnam veteran who passed on his tradition of service to his only son.

A combat medic, KC has put his skills to the test in some pretty tough neighborhoods. He was attached to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Fallujah, Iraq, in late 2004. He deployed again -- on Aug. 29, 2007, his 20th birthday – with the 1st Infantry Division to Baghdad, just ahead of the troop surge ordered to quell violence there.

KC is matter-of-fact about his skills and slow to admit he knows he’s enabled wounded troops to return home to their families. “Some people are trained to shoot mortar rounds. Some people are trained to clear houses,” he said. “They just trained me to save lives, so I save lives.”

When things get “hot,” KC said, his training kicks in before he even knows it’s happened. “It’s total muscle memory,” he said. “You just have to know what to do, and you do it. You stop the bleeding, clear the airway, then go on from there. … You do the best that you can.”

When he was assigned for a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s oncology ward – a stabilization tour because he’d spent so much of his Army time deployed – KC got a touching personal reminder of the impact of what he does.

He recognized the name of a patient he’d “worked on” in Baghdad after an enemy attack cost him an eye. The two reunited, with KC filling in many of the soldier’s unanswered questions as he forged a new friendship with him and his family.

As the time for a new assignment approached, KC turned down a slot with the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division, knowing many of the division’s soldiers were deployed to northern Iraq and that he’d likely end up joining them. Instead, he opted for the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson.

The day before KC left for his new assignment, he got word that he’d be deploying to Afghanistan exactly one month after arriving at his new post. KC is nonchalant about the change of plans.

“I don’t think it’s right for anybody in the military to be completely blindsided when they’re told they are going to deploy,” he said, shrugging his soldiers.

KC knows he’s bound for Kandahar in the increasingly violent Regional Command South area, part of the increased U.S. troop presence President Barack Obama ordered to turn the situation there around. He’s seen what more troops can mean, and he speaks with certainty that they’ll have the same impact in Afghanistan. “I think we will definitely make a difference,” he said.

As KC shared his story, the tattoos on his arms filled in some of the gaps.

There are the two stars, one on the back of each arm. KC got them in St. Louis during his rest-and-recuperation leave from Iraq to honor his Northern California roots and the mother back in Sacramento he says he wants to make proud.

On the front of his right arm, a 1st Infantry Division crest commemorates the buddies he served with during 15 months in Baghdad.

But it’s KC’s left arm, where a $400, custom-designed tattoo that stretches from his clavicle to just above his elbow tells stories of loss most civilians his age would never understand. A Gothic-looking character KC said represents him looks down on seven faces, all connected by curlicues called “cancer” in tattoo parlance. “It’s a thread that holds everything together,” he said.

“They all represent different friends I’ve lost,” KC said of the ghoulish faces. Not all the faces were combat losses, and not all were actually friends, but they all made deep enough an impression on KC for him to carry their memories on his arms for the rest of his days.

One represents his grandfather, who influenced his decision to enlist. Another is a sailor he didn’t know, but whose combat death struck KC deeply. A third face represents Army Staff Sgt. Mike Ruoff, his friend’s platoon sergeant, who was killed in Ramadi, Iraq. Another face depicts his friend Cpl. Milton Gist, a cook also killed in Ramadi.

A “kind of mysterious” face adorning KC’s arm represents a sergeant major’s gunner killed when an armor-piercing projectile hit his vehicle in western Iraq. KC didn’t know him and didn’t “work on him,” but got the task of retrieving the soldier’s weapons and personal gear from the crippled truck.

There’s also an image of KC’s friend, Sgt. Evan Cole. KC was deployed to Baghdad when he got work that Cole had been killed in Ramadi. Then, out of the clear blue, he heard from Cole on his Facebook page.

“It was kind of like hearing from a ghost,” KC said. When he told Cole what he’d heard about his fate, Cole casually threw back, “I don’t think I’m dead.”

KC hadn’t yet gotten his tattoo, but already had included Cole in the design, and he decided not to change it. “I told him, you’re on my arm as being dead, dude,” he told his friend.

The final face on KC’s arm, a guy “with sad eyes,” wasn’t a soldier and wasn’t killed in the war. It represents a friend back home, Josh, who took his own life at age 15 by jumping in front of a train while KC was in Iraq.

As he prepares to deploy to Afghanistan, KC said, he doesn’t want to add more faces to his tattoo.

Looking to the future, he prefers to focus on the message tattooed on his lower right forearm, “Live the Dream.”

“Everybody, when they are growing up, has a dream of what they want to be when they grow up,” he said.

Asked what that means to him, KC paused to reflect. “I want to be somebody who’s respectful,” he said.

“Maybe wealthy,” he added with a smile, quickly retracting the idea. “No,” he said, “I want to be one of those people who is happy with what they have.”

Then, as if suddenly remembering that it was Mother’s Day as he was heading to his new unit at Fort Carson, he added, “And I want to make my mom happy.”
Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe heavily tattooed arm of Army Cpl. “KC” reveal the history, loyalties and dreams of a soldier who’s seen two combat deployments during four and a half years of service and is preparing for another one, to Afghanistan, in June. DoD photo by Donna Miles  
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