Today is Veterans’ Day and with this occasion come many different news items that have to do with veterans and the contribution they make. But what touched me most personally today was a story about veterans, both men and women, expressing their experience of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan through tattoo art on their bodies.
“We all carry our stories. This is a way of telling the story without having to say anything,” one of the veterans reported. And the theme was repeated by everyone–whether a way to approach post traumatic stress, remember significant moments, memorialize loss, honor their buddies or express an identity that can’t be put into words.
A picture can say more than a thousand words. But sometimes there just are no words. When people are in a war or life threatening situation, we revert to the parts of our brain that focus primarily on our survival. Almost like a child’s precognitive state, we may not be registering our experiences in words, or even left brain thoughts. Yet they are being recorded on the body. I see the inherent harmony in using body art as a way to acknowledge these profound, often unmentionable experiences. The images work with our consciousness and over time our witnessing mind can begin to digest and integrate the information.
Some years after the Viet Nam War, author Maxine Hong Kingston led writing groups for Vietnam vets and others who served in Vietnam. She said that it takes about twenty years to look back on your experience and really be able to write about it. As a therapist and writer, I understand how the combination of time elapsed and the capacity to witness from some distance allows us to look at difficult situations from our childhood or our family history, without reactivating the traumatic feelings again. In memoir writing the witness can touch tender memories and yet bring healing with the perspective of wisdom gained over time. I experienced so much of this while writing “The Woman in the Photograph.” I had feelings but as the memoir writer, I had some control over my response to them. Perhaps that is what vets experience when they look at their tattoos, a bit of distance from the intensity yet a window to enter into reflection, integration and some resolution.
The War Ink project gives a new voice to our veterans, our sons and daughters, parents, siblings, friends who served. It is a site worth visiting. When you listen to the stories these veterans tell, whether with your eyes or your ears, you are also supporting them as they have supported us.
A photo of my mother also told me a story she hadn’t ever talked about. Today and tomorrow are the last two days to get The Woman in the Photograph on Kindle digital, FREE. Enjoy.