I started getting my tattoos at a much later age than most of you. I did 23 years of US Army service before retiring. Due to my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) or the places I was posted, I wasn’t allowed tattoos, but I always knew what I eventually wanted and I’m still working through that list even now. I spent the intervening years honing what I wanted and working out the designs and concept compilations in my mind and on paper.
This is one of my first tattoos and the first large one. It was done in 4.5 hours by a young man named “Sketch” (Brian) who works at Body Rites Piercing and Tattoos in the Five Points area (near USC) of Columbia, South Carolina. He’d moved recently from Texas where he’d won many awards for his portrait tattoos. Since I didn’t want a “cartoon” or classic American style tattoo, I sought him out. He is well known for his light needlework and deft approach to shade and depth in his craft. This was important to get the effect I needed.
I gave him my original drawings and he then did two weeks of research to locate photos of the items I needed in the tattoo. At about $100 an hour plus his tip you should be able to do the math easily. I WILL say that he is MUCH faster than most at his skill level, so I probably still saved a couple of hundred dollars.
Eight years of my nearly quarter century of service was as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant with both 5th and 19th Groups (Airborne). I spent almost half that time in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Colombia in Central and South America.
The tattoo is filled with meaning. Of course there is the SF beret (aka Green Beret). I decided on not putting on a Flash because I couldn’t decide between the 5th or the 19th groups. The Unit Crest on the beret is the standard one for all SF MOS’s.
The meanings within the tattoo is as follows:
Emblazoned on the distinctive black and silver unit crest worn by all Special Forces soldiers is the SF motto: De Oppresso Liber, a Latin phrase that means “To Free the Oppressed.” Two crossed arrows symbolize the Special Forces’ role in unconventional warfare. A fighting knife is attached over the arrows, which reflect the qualities of a Special Forces soldier: straight and true. The knife, a silent deadly weapon, was used by the American Indian from whom early American soldiers learned much.
The two crossed arrows on the unit crest are also the branch insignia of Special Forces commissioned officers. They are a symbol derived from the Indian scouts (several of whom earned Medals of Honor while serving U.S. forces in almost every major campaign). Crossed arrows were actually a symbol of peace to the U.S. Scouts, which were inactivated in 1939. However, the crossed arrows served the 1st Special Service Force through World War II and some SFs officers at Fort Bragg began wearing them unofficially on their collars back in the 1960’s. In April 1987, after I’d left the SF for the Airborne Infantry, a separate branch of the Army was created for Special Forces officers, who then formally adopted the crossed arrows as their official branch insignia.
The skull is a long-time representation of combat arms, especially the Airborne Infantry of which all Special Forces soldiers are a part. The intricate and accurate detail of the skull was to represent my long studies of anatomy and field medicine. An upturned dagger represents the unconventional warfare missions of Special Forces. This particular dagger is the same Viet Nam era bayonet I was issued upon first entering the US Army back in 1975. It pierces both the skull and the beret representing the bonding of all three symbols. The jagged tear in the beret shows the pain and rigors of training to bring all those facets together into one cohesive and effective soldier…me.
The lightning bolts over the dagger handle represent blinding speed and strength. Three of them together symbolize the three methods of combat infiltration - land, sea and air. The gold represents constancy and inspiration
The scalpel, syringe and stethoscope are all the exact same models I most commonly used in the field. The scalpel is the most common with a #3 handle and #10 tissue blade. The syringe is the frosted tempered glass with the reusable needles we had back in the 60’s/70’s - when you still had to sterilize and sharpen your tools manually.
The stethoscope represents the skill of diagnosis. The syringe represents maintaining preventive health care. The scalpel represents life-saving trauma skills.
Not shown, but still implied and very significant, is the gold and teal Special Forces shoulder patch worn by SF members and units around the world. The arrowhead shape of the patch represents the craft and stealth of the Indians, America’s first warriors. The background of teal blue represents the Special Forces’ encompassing of all branch assignments. The three lightning bolts I already explained above.
I hope might help some of you, especially those of you under a couple of decades in age, just how meaningful a tattoo can be, how life’s experiences can actually enhance the decide you get and what this one means to me. It was a long time in coming and I’m quite proud of it. All my tats do and will mean a great deal. I hope you put into yours a little of the effort I put into mine. You’ll always be happy you did.
Painful? Yeah…over the ankle and shin bones (the bottom of the stethoscope and where the scalpel and syringe both wrap around). It had my eyes watering a few times. The eyes of the skull took a half hour alone to do and that got pretty rough on the nerves as well. The rest of the time I just embraced the pain.