Many hours later the team lands at the Baltimore Airport and is greeted by a line of cheering civilians. The PJs skirt the inside corner as the girl with the pink, fluffy pillow shakes hands. They change into civilian clothes as quickly as possible and start the rest of their journey to Alaska. Families are there to receive them and as is the case with every Air Force deployment, life just starts again without any transition, as if they had just been on vacation.
A week after the team’s return they are back at work, spending the majority of their time managing paperwork, arguing with finance about pay issues, and catching up on computer-based training focused on suicide prevention and sexual harassment. A short time after they return to work, all the men are required to complete a Post Deployment Health Assessment.
On the assessment, they are asked to mark whether they saw anybody die, whether they killed anybody, whether they are having strange thoughts about anything they experienced. Roger answers yes to all and receives a call almost immediately after submitting the assessment. “This girl is on the other end,” Roger says, “She says, ‘Sir did you know that there’s a VA center in your town that can help you?’ And I say yes, yes thank you very much and she says, ‘I’m sorry sir, I really am, but that’s all I can offer you.’—I just hung up.”
Months pass and nobody on the team speaks a word about any issues. If a team member does admit to having a problem, the Air Force will bar them from training and holding alert with the squadron, forcing that man’s work to be passed down to the next guy. So everybody stays silent—until Jimmy is finally overcome.
In the months that follow, Jimmy is treated like a liability, told by a medical group commander after seeking counseling that the Air Force does not have combatants therefore there are no airmen with PTSD. Jimmy drifts away from the team, finds himself living in his car on McChord AFB as he fights for a year just to meet with a counselor, experiences the physiological black vortex of mental injury, and eventually separates—he will go on to find serenity in gardening, specifically medical cannabis in legalized Washington.
Roger stays silent until one day while watching Forest Gump with his family, the firefight scene comes on and he breaks. “I don’t know why it happened right then,” Roger says, “But I just went down to the garage, laid down on the ground, and cried.”
The next day Roger goes to the medical group on base and seeks counseling. “And they refer me to the sexual harassment counselor,” he says, “I just walked out.”
Roger dives deeper into his grief, finding the darkest corners of his soul. But in that place of deep struggle, something far from the lead and cordite of the battlefield pulls at his heart—that painful form of art, that catharsis of permanent creation. He tattoos coy fish on one of his thighs, five hours in the first sitting.
“I knew right away,” Roger says, “that this was my therapy.”
Eventually, other men on the team see what Roger is doing and ask him to tattoo them. Roger’s garage begins to transform from a storage space to a studio, little by little, as the realization of what he is becoming envelops Roger and the process of an artist being born begins its long and endless journey. Soldiers from the Army base hear about Roger and start knocking on his suburban door. Within a couple of years of Bulldog Bite, his garage is filled with the loud drone of a tattoo machine and visited by a combat veteran almost every night. And under the bright lamp focused on that padded table, hardened men lift shirts to expose vulnerable skin, and it cannot be denied that the whole scene resembles a space meant for healing.
* * *
The outlines finished, it is now time for Roger to shade the roses with gray wash and black. I walk into his garage ready for another session—this time the fun begins, he says, no stencils to follow, just intuition.
I walk in to find Roger staring at two pictures—one of a gray rose and one of a vibrant red rose. He says that he thinks we should do color, the gray would just sink into the background and not catch the eye. He has not done very much color in his tattoos before, which mostly consist of skulls and black ravens, and dark mandalas. But I can sense the purpose in his instincts for brightness, so I tell him to make it whatever he wants, make it colorful.
“Alright, man. It’s gonna look great. This is where the real art is. I’m gonna use a little bit of magenta and then some pink—don’t worry, not too much pink you won’t even notice it, and then a little bit of orange and man . . . this is gonna just pop out at people—they’re gonna want to see it and follow it around your arm, you know. Yeah—this is where it’s at.”
Photography by: Joe Yelverton
You can view Roger’s artwork here.