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Tattoos of love and war for US Marines

MARJAH, Afghanistan (AFP) – Corporal Jones Kendall twists around to read the tattoo in gothic script on his bicep: "Father please forgive me if I have to send them to you Lord".


by Karim Talbi Karim Talbi – Thu Apr 8, 1:25 am ET

"This one is for the Taliban," he grinned.

In Marjah, where thousands of troops are deployed on the frontline against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, the body art etched across Kendall's back, arms and torso pay homage to the celestial powers he prays will keep him alive.

On his muscular back is Saint Michael the archangel. "Be my protection against the wickedness and snares of devil," reads the inscription.

For many Marines, frescoes on skin narrate their lives as soldiers and as men, exorcise their fears, honour their comrades and proclaim their loves.

Kendall got his first tattoo, the acronym of the US Marine Corps, or USMC, etched on to his arm when he was a 17-year-old in California. In the last three years, he has acquired another four.

USMC is the most popular tattoo for a Marine -- often the first, sometimes the last -- a rite of passage and affirmation of membership in the corps.

"I was sent to Fallujah in 2007," says Kendall of the infamous bastion of resistance in western Iraq where scores of American troops were killed in bitter fighting after the US-led invasion.

"I guess I just didn't want to die," he said.

Before leaving Louisiana and shipping out to Afghanistan, he got the Saint Michael for the same reason: "Because I don't want to die."

His chest is tattooed with "My judge is God" and his back "Sometimes I wanna drop a tear, but no emotion from a king".

Kendall's wife is seven months pregnant and his child will be born before he is due to ship back to the United States in July.

Tattoos are an integral sub-culture in the US Marines but commanders have been preoccupied over the extent to which they should limit a phenomenon considered offensive in some cultures, particularly among the conservative Afghan Muslims.

With the United States leading a counter-insurgency strategy trying to win over Afghans and keep the Taliban at bay to bring a quick end to the nine-year war, the general rule is that tattoos should be hidden under uniforms.

The Marine corps website warns: "The growing trend of excessive tattoos limits worldwide assignability of Marines and detracts from one of the most visible hallmarks of our corps -- our distinguished appearance."

Tattoos are banned if deemed sexist, racist, eccentric or "offensive in nature," associated with drug use, or "vulgar or anti-American" in content.

Tattoos on the head and neck are prohibited, and officers are limited to a maximum of four tattoos visible in standard shorts and T-shirt.

Sergeant Paul Williams is only 22 years old, but his back is already a memory board honouring Marines who have fallen in America's wars.

"Four of my guys were killed in Iraq," he said. "Marines are still getting killed. It's the least I could do to honour their memory."

Inked into the skin with needles is a pair of boots with an M-16 and a helmet on top -- the standard memorial to fallen US service personnel -- with two dogs standing guard.

Written above is: "Through the fields of destruction, baptisms of fire, I've witnessed you suffering as the battle rages higher" from the Dire Straits song, "Brothers In Arms".

Likewise Corporal Lorenzo Robles's body reveals more than an interview could about this 22-year-old from Anaheim, California.

On his shoulder is written the Marines' motto "Semper Fidelis," Latin for "always faithful".

On the other is a ghetto blaster showing his passion for music. On the torso, an ode to "Jacqueline" -- his mother who died in 2005. And on his back "muerte vendra" -- or "death will come".

"People are afraid of death. I figured out it will help me," he explained, scratching behind his ear where he had another tattoo removed.

Corporal Daniel Andersen has the Latin adage "Si vis pacem para bellum" (if one wants peace, prepare for war) written on his arms.

"I feel Afghans looking at them sometimes. They are curious about it, but don't say anything," he said.

His right shoulder is decorated with an eagle, a globe and an anchor, the Marines emblem.

"I plan more tattoos and I don't care about tattoo policy. It's my body, these regulation rules are stupid," he said.

Marines may not get kicked out for tattoos, but body art can dim career prospects.

Major Billy Ray Moore says he has warned young Marines that tattoo overkill can limit their chances of becoming officers or instructors.

"One day, a Marine had a naked girl tattooed on his shoulder," said Moore. "We gave him the choice: being expelled or remove the tattoo. He came back later. He'd added a towel on the girl -- and was kept."