Jason Deitch has a tattoo on the underside of his forearm that reads, in three parts, “First I served. Then I healed. Now I serve that cause.”
Deitch is an Army veteran, military sociologist and veteran advocate whose tattoo encapsulates his life’s mission to help war veterans readjust to civilian life and “come all the way home.” Last year, along with Contra Costa County Library senior manager Chris Brown, Deitch embarked on a journey that would become his greatest piece of advocacy for veterans yet: a project called War Ink.
War Ink (warink.org), which launched on Veterans Day, is an online multimedia exhibit that seeks to offer an authentic documentation of veterans’ experiences coming home from war. Using video, still photography, audio and text, the exhibit features Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans from across California – each with their own personal story, spelled out in ink on skin.
“Warfighter culture has become a very different thing than civilian culture, and a lot of the aspects of warfighter culture are antithetical to civilian culture,” Deitch said.
Deitch said a tenet and survival mechanism of military culture is a wariness of expressing pain and emotion – hence the nonverbal expression through body art common among war vets.
Army veteran Noah Bailey, who lost both legs below the knee during an IED attack in Afghanistan in 2005, has a tattoo on his chest of his Chuck Taylor shoes flying up to heaven.
Victoria Lord, who calls the Navy the family she had never known, has a verse tattooed between her shoulder blades that reads, “Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to trust, no fading of its hope. It can outlast anything. Love still stands when all else has fallen.”
They are two of the 24 veterans who contributed their stories to the War Ink project.
Deitch believes fostering a wider understanding of veterans’ experiences is crucial to helping vets heal, and to bridging the chasm between civilian and military culture.
“All human beings need community,” Deitch said. “In order to have community, you have to have meaningful relationships. In order to have meaningful relationships, you have to have meaningful communication.”
To fund their project, Deitch and Brown applied for a Cal Humanities grant and received $10,000 to document the stories of six veterans in Contra Costa County. After getting StoryCorps in New York to agree to audio-record the stories, Deitch and Brown “really started plotting,” Deitch said.
They got StoryCorps and their funders to agree to do more stories, and expanded War Ink into an ambitious project documenting the narratives of dozens of vets throughout California.
Deitch and Brown found veterans by contacting hundreds of tattoo shops and nearly every veterans’ center in California.
The project culminated in a whirlwind four-day shoot that drew the 24 vets to the Bay Area to share their tattoos and stories on camera.
“Before the shoot, Chris and I were working 12-hour days, seven days a week,” Deitch said. “During the shoot, we were awake five days straight.”
The shoot also allowed the veterans to meet one another and bond over shared experiences.
Zakariah Bass, an Iraq War vet, added new ink to his arm after the project wrapped: the War Ink logo.
Bass’ new tattoo pays tribute to the impact the project has had on his life, an impact Brown says is not uncommon among the vets who participated in War Ink.
“[Bass] talked about how the project was gently allowing him to confront his lack of forgiveness for himself and the people he went to war against,” Brown said. “And that’s so much more than you could wish for.”