The Art of War: Honoring the Fallen for a Lifetime

3 minute read

Updated: May 1, 2014, 11.45 a.m. E.T.

The U.S. Army’s new rules on the wear and appearance of insignia and uniforms — which include restrictions on tattoos — were issued on March 30, 2014, with a 30-day window of enforcement, and have now come into effect.

The new rules not only place limits on the number of tattoos a soldier can have, but on the size of every visible tattoo itself: In short, all new inkage should be no bigger than the wearer’s open hand. However, the army is allowing many soldiers to keep the tattoos they already have provided they are not deemed extremist, indecent, sexist or racist.

America’s troops too often come home from war only to remain a step apart from the rest of the nation. The chasm between the military and civilian populations has never been greater. It’s simple math: Less than one percent of Americans now serve in the military, compared with 12 percent during World War II. So after a decade of unrelenting war, with some soldiers and Marines serving four or more combat tours, many Americans still don’t know a single soldier, sailor or airman.

Veterans will tell you that one of the most jarring experiences of their service is the sudden immersion back into a society seemingly unaware that there are any wars going on at all. While they fought, their country went about its business. So they must find their own ways to acknowledge their experiences. A common ritual is the commemorative tattoo. Troops honor fallen buddies, venerate their units, reiterate war mottos, engrave themselves with religious prose, or dream up art that reflects experiences they might not talk about.

Since 1992, Capitol Tattoo has been inking the bodies of returning soldiers in a storefront shop on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Md., just north of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the massive Army hospital that is in the process of closing. “They are our family,” says owner Al Herman, of the soldiers who come in for artwork, or just to hang out.

On one day this summer, Herman opened his door to photographer Peter Hapak. The veteran clients rolled up their sleeves, stripped off their shirts, and revealed their scars, hoping that the resulting images would help bridge the chasm of understanding.

Mark Benjamin is an investigative reporter based in Washington, and a contributer to TIME, as well as’s military intelligence blog Battleland. You can follow him on Twitter at MarkMBenjamin

MORE: Read Mark Benjamin’s magazine story, “The Art of War,” from this week’s issue of TIME [available to subscribers here].

Cpl. Paul A. Bell, U.S. Army. "This is my version of hell. It is not God that is punishing you. You are punishing yourself. They are falling away from God," Bell, who was a medic in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, says of the two figures falling into flames.Peter Hapak for TIME
Pfc. Zachariah Fleury, U.S. Army.Peter Hapak for TIME
Spc. Devon Pitz, U.S. Army “That is my airborne infantry tattoo,” says Pitz, who was with the 101st. The scars are the result of shrapnel wounds from an explosion. Peter Hapak for TIME
Spc. Edward Klavin II, U.S. Army. "I never tell subjects what to do, or how to act," says photographer Peter Hapak. "Klavin just got into this position and stood there as if he wanted to tell a story by showing his body."Peter Hapak for TIME
“That was the guy who was with me when I was hit,” says Cpl. Ben McCrosky, who was serving with the Marines in Afghanistan when he was attacked on April 1, 2010. When a service member is killed in action, his boots, gun and helmet are gathered, and a service is held in-theater.Peter Hapak for TIME
"It's an old knight with a sword," says Sgt. Joey Ferguson, who served with the Marines. Ferguson has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost his right leg during his second combat tour. "I can relate to him.” Peter Hapak for TIME
"They're for the unit I was in," says Staff Sgt. Brad Fasnacht of the U.S. Army, who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The skull and helmet tattoo commemorates his service with the 44th Engineer Battalion.Peter Hapak for TIME
Spc. Thomas Beaver of the U.S. Army shows his left arm which has the names of two of his brothers who are both also in the military. Getting someone's name is common says Hapak. "It honors them. They're not here so we're going to carry their story on our bodies."Peter Hapak for TIME
Army Spc. Anthony Morales has multiple tattoos to remember his time in the military. Peter Hapak for TIME
Spc. Thomas Beaver, of the U.S. Army, has an unfinished tattoo on his shoulder. Operation Enduring Freedom will be inked into to the banner to commemorate his tour. Peter Hapak for TIME
“A lot of shrapnel went through that shoulder,” says Spc. Devon Pitz, of the U.S. Army, who served in Aghanistan in 2009 and 2010, of the tattoo bearing his father's name.Peter Hapak for TIME
“I lost my right leg above he knee. I had a parachute malfunction with the 82nd Airborne,” says Maj. Jon Craig, of the U.S. Army, who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. The tattoo on his left leg commemorates his time with the Citadel's Summerall Guards, an elite silent drill team at the South Carolina military college Peter Hapak for TIME
Sgt. Rudy McGoy, of the U.S. Army, whose back and arms are scarred by shrapnel from his 2009 tour in Afghanistan, chose a Book of Hebrews quote that he felt was representative of the enemy he faced in Afghanistan. "This is how they fought," McGoy says. "My grandmother sent it to me on a postcard. We had to work around the scars.” Peter Hapak for TIME

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at