For Veteran Students, Tattoos Tell Tales

URBANA, Ill. — For Caleb Carlson, his tattoos remind him to keep balance in his life. For Brandi Binder, they remind her of what she lost. And for Brent Blackwell, his largest tattoo, a skeleton, reminds him that everyone must die, so “do what you enjoy.”

Tattoos are becoming more of a cultural norm these days, but the body art has long been a norm in the military. That’s why it occurred to Nicholas Osborne, director of the UI’s Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education, that featuring some University of Illinois student veterans and their tattoos in a display would be a great medium for storytelling.

“Stories that (veterans) would not necessarily share in words but will commemorate on their bodies,” said Osborne, who’s a veteran with tattoos.

Several UI student veterans agreed to share their tattoos and the stories behind them for the display at the UI’s Main Library that ran through November:

Binder joined the National Guard at 17 after her junior year of high school, because she wanted to become the first in her family with a college degree but couldn’t pay for it. After graduating from high school, she immediately left for basic training.

“I loved it so much,” said Binder, who put off college and worked full time at Lincoln’s Challenge Academy while serving in the Guard. Her first overseas deployment was in Iraq in 2006, where she had various jobs in a military prison. She came home in October 2007, but she and three fellow guardsmen found it hard to be home and decided to go back. They left for Afghanistan less than a year later. Binder was stationed at Camp Phoenix near Kabul, and soon after, one of her three friends was killed.

The dog tags in the large tattoo that trails down her spine are her friend’s, and the Phoenix symbolizes her time at Camp Phoenix, were she “lost a lot and gained a lot.” She got both when she returned from her second deployment. The Japanese Kanji symbols— which stand for “true love, soulmate, mother and soldier”— were her first tattoo, which she got along with her husband just before her first deployment.

After her friend died in Afghanistan, Binder says in her testimonial for the library display, “I realized that being home was more important than being deployed.”

Binder said she also decided it was time to go for that college education. She’s now a month from graduating with a master’s in social work, which she will use to run Harboured Veterans, the nonprofit organization she has started to help other veterans.

Blackwell has multiple tattoos. The largest is a skeleton pictured from the waist up that covers most of his left side. He said he wanted it to be large so needed a sizeable “canvas,” and his left rib cage was the spot. He said it took three five-hour sessions that were uncomfortable, even painful, partly because he couldn’t breathe normally or it would move the artist’s “canvas” too much and partly because that part of the body is more sensitive.

Below the skeleton is the Latin phrase, “memento mori,” which means “remember that you have to die.” Blackwell said for him, it’s a reminder to do what you enjoy, because everyone must die. He also has a ship on his right forearm that symbolizes who he is – a traveler on the open sea going from place to place.

With five deployments in his 27 years, Blackwell said most of his life has been on the move, a lifestyle he enjoys and has missed during his time as a student at the UI. As president of the Illini Veterans, Blackwell said the display tells veterans’ stories and shows they are all individuals.

Carlson grew up in a family where military service and expression through tattoos are both common and the familial bond is important. So it was a given, Carlson says, that he would get a tattoo before his first deployment to Afghanistan.

His first, a sun on his shoulder — just like his father’s, but on the opposite shoulder — took about four hours in a tattoo shop in Chicago. At that time, he wanted but couldn’t afford, a second tattoo — a moon on the opposite shoulder, also just like his father’s.

So the moon came later — just before his second deployment.

Now, Carlson says, the sun and moon tattoos not only connect him to family but also remind him to keep balance in his life, especially now that he’s a student veteran transitioning from his service as a soldier to his new experiences at the UI, which are “very different” worlds.

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