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AFI Dallas: Tattooed Under Fire


by Jerome Weeks 27 Mar 2009

Roxanne Wheelis owns the River City Tattoo Parlors in Killeen and in Austin. Five years ago over a beer, Wheelis told documentary filmmaker Nancy Schiasari about the young men and women from Fort Hood — and the tattoo that some were getting before they deployed to Iraq.
It’s called a “meat tag.” It’s a soldier’s dog tag information tattooed on his or her torso.

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Trailer for Tattooed Under Fire

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Roxanne Wheelis owns the River City Tattoo Parlors in Killeen and in Austin. Five years ago over a beer, Wheelis told documentary filmmaker Nancy Schiesari about the young men and women from Fort Hood — and the tattoo that some were getting before they deployed to Iraq.

It’s called a “meat tag.” It’s a soldier’s dog tag information tattooed on his or her torso.

SCHIESARI: “They do this in the event that they get blown up, the torso is most likely to remain intact and they can be identified.”

Wheelis also told Schiesari that she should hear the stories these soldiers were telling. They talk because getting a tattoo can be like what happens with a hair stylist or a massage therapist. A friendly stranger puts her hands on you and, over time, you relax and tell her your life story.

River City Tattoo Parlor in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood


WHEELIS: “You just have to let down your defenses, and the tattooist has to make you comfortable. It’s akin to counseling, plus you get a fabulous piece of artwork for the rest of your life.”

In 2005, Schiesari started visiting the Killeen tattoo parlor with a crew of her filmmaking students from the University of Texas at Austin. While making the documentary Tattooed Under Fire, they found that, even in front of a camera, the soldiers would open up – about themselves and the war.

SCHIESARI : “I saw how easy it was, while someone’s being tattooed, if they talk. It sort of helps people cope with the fact of the needle digging in. So as the person talked more and more, it was easier to ask, What’s your worst fear? And then all this stuff comes out.”

For many soldiers, getting a tattoo remains a macho ritual – a form of warrior paint. Other soldiers use their bodies as canvases to express themselves. One displays a tattoo that declares Rats Get Fat – a comment on war profits. Others want to remember the best in their lives.

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Anthony, combat medic

James Collette, a lead gunner, has had favorite animals inked on him as well as reminders of the music he plays.

COLLETTE: “Mostly, they’re kind of a storyboard to remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve gone through in my life.”

But as the soldiers return from deployment, the second half of Tattooed Under Fire becomes more about the aftermath of war than body art. While driving to Dallas, Collette had to swerve off the freeway. He’d had a flashback to a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq. In this scene from the film, he shakes while describing it.

COLLETE: “It’s like 150 lbs of explosives from 10 feet away. That’s a lot of concussion from the explosion. And it just slammed me into the turret of the truck. And just engulfed the whole truck in flames.”

Jonathan Evans, a combat mechanic, has a memento of his mother on one arm. On the other, he has a Grim Reaper – a reminder of an event that’s plagued him with nightmares. Evans saw an Iraqi point a rocket launcher. Evans shot him with his machine gun. The Iraqi turned out to be a child.

EVANS: “Last tour, after I had to gun down a child with a .50 cal, I just couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day, I was shutting down. One of my buddies made the crack that only the Reaper could have done that and still done his job. So when we got home, went out and got real drunk, my buddy talked me into getting a Reaper put on my arm.”

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Both Collette and Evans are being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Evans calls himself a walking time bomb of aggression.

EVANS: “It’s being dealt with through various treatments and various means of calming down. Lately, I get pissed off, I go outside and work on my car.”

Schiesari hadn’t planned on her documentary turning out this way.

SCHIESARI: “I really didn’t know what was going to happen in part two. These soldiers came back with those experiences. It’s lucky in that sense, it’s good to have a day job because I could do this film over three years and go back and forth, oh God knows how many times.”

The soldiers are marking their torsos the way the war has marked their lives. And they’re using their skin to cope — and to celebrate. Those sounds in the background while Evans spoke were from his infant son. Evans has had another tattoo put on his arm. It’s a baby reaper and its name is David.

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Filmmaker Nancy Schiesari


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