Marines in Afghanistan explain their tattoos

Marines in Afghanistan explain their tattoos

As Veterans Day approaches I dig up and view videos of Marines I interviewed about their tattoos during my time embedded in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

I watch Cpl. Anthony Palaia explain why he has the blank face of the Grim Reaper tattooed over his ribcage.

“It’s just to remind me that death comes in all forms,” he said. “You can’t see it or know when it’s going to happen.”

One Marine has the image of a woman with flowing hair, gripping a skull close to her chest, inked on his bicep.

“Me and my wife were talking one night and we were just asking each other stupid questions,” Cpl Erik Johnson said.

He asked her, “If I ever died, would you let you go?” She answered, “No.”

A week later, Johnson was medevacked from a grade III concussion he suffered during an IED blast. Soon, he returned to duty with three more months of the deployment to complete.

In another clip, a Marine shows his “meat tags,” which is Marine jargon for tattoos of dog tags, which identify the dead and wounded by using their names, Social Security numbers, blood type and religion for last rites.

“It’s used to identify your body when nothing else is left,” said Hospital Corpsman Jason Houches, pulling up his shirt to reveal his dog tags inked on his side.

Another Marine describes the two Chinese characters on his chest symbolizing life and death. He has a wide smile, which accents his high check bones and dimples.

“That’s my feeling, you should have a choice to live or to die,” Cpl Philip Charte said.

Suddenly the smile was gone.

He turned around and pointed to a small bird tattooed on his shoulder blade.

“The tattoo on my back, of the dove, is to mean that my mom made peace with God when she passed away in 2005,” he said.

He looked at the camera; his brown eyes were sad and strong.

I turned the camera off and packed my things. In a few minutes an armored vehicle would arrive and take me back to the main base.

Just a week later on Sept. 7, 2010, Charte was killed in action.

I wish I asked Charte what he meant by that choosing life or death.

Did he mean that he was choosing one by joining the Marine Corps?

But there will be no more questions, just this little piece of his life caught on film.

Now he is gone.

Perhaps that is why these men and women keep etching their memories into their flesh, to commemorate the good and the bad, to not forget what they have gained - and what they have lost.

Cali Bagby embedded with the Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, north of the Pakistani border, as a multimedia journalist for KVAL News in 2010. She and Dan Morrison won an Oregon Associated Press Broadcast Award for their reporting.

Bagby is a freelance multimedia journalist who spent 10 months embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq for KVAL.com.

She is a graduate of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication in Eugene, Ore.