He Wants a Tattoo That Reminds Me of Deployment Pain

Ms. Vicki

Dear Ms. Vicki,

My husband wants to get another tattoo, but I have some concerns.

He already has several tattoos on his legs, and I like them. They're well done, and I think they look really cool.

The new one he wants will take up half of his arm, and I worry that it might be harder for him to cover up when he's in a setting where he doesn't want it to show -- but that's not my biggest concern. I know people aren't judged for having tattoos like they used to be.

My biggest concern is that the tattoo he has designed is a very beautiful scene from Afghanistan. It's not depressing or hateful. There aren't any skulls or symbols of death or anything like that. It really is a stunning image, and the artist he's picked to do it is very talented. Each element of the design is meaningful for him.

He's had four heavy combat deployments to southern Afghanistan, and many of his friends died during those deployments. But he doesn't have PTSD and he says that those deployments represent some of the best times in his life. He says that he always wanted to be a soldier and that he's grateful to have been able to fight in a real war.

At first, I worried that him tattooing a memory of war on his body might make him get "stuck" in that memory and not be able to move on from it later in life. But, after talking with him about it, I'm not really worried about that happening to him anymore. His attitude toward his combat experiences seems really healthy, actually.

Here's my problem: Those four deployments were, hands down, the worst days of my life. When he thinks of that time, he thinks of the close bonds he had with his brothers in arms -- but I think of loneliness.

He thinks of being able to rise to the occasion and exhibit bravery in combat. I think of sitting terrified and alone in my house, waiting for someone to knock on the door and tell me that I'm a widow.

He thinks of the purity of duty -- of just getting to do the work he trained to do. I think of giving birth alone and the exhaustion of raising our children alone.

To sum it up, he thinks that every time he sees the tattoo, it will remind him of a highlight in his life -- and it probably will -- but I think it will remind me of the worst years of my life, years I'd really like to move past.

It's his body, and I don't want to tell him that he can't get whatever tattoo he wants, and maybe it won't bother me to see it everyday. But what if it does?

I want to be with him forever, and a big tattoo like that is a permanent decision. So what do I do? He has already made the the appointment to get it done.

-- Rethinking His Ink

Dear Rethinking,

What a well-thought out letter that has a lot of great lessons for military couples! Can you believe I was just talking to my husband about his deployments last weekend and about what they meant to me?

I told my husband that I once heard from another spouse that casualty notifications are made from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. Every day during his deployments, I was a nervous wreck from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. I would even make a few extra trips to my front door in the evenings to make sure an officer and a chaplain weren't walking up my front steps.

I never knew for sure if the spouse gave me the right information about the notification process, but I believed her.

During his deployments, I would also leave my name, my husband's name and my contact number taped to my front door when I was at work or running errands just in case a notification team was looking for me. Every morning and every night, I prayed and thanked God for another day. My anxiety was through the roof!

I'm glad you can see that this is about more than tattoos. This seems to be more about some unspoken anxiety, sadness and grief that you experienced during his deployments.

You were probably thinking, "How can I complain about anything because my husband is alive and healthy?" Of course, I'm not saying that, as spouses, our anxiety was like combat, but we still experienced something huge!

Your experiences are valid and normal. Psychologists give a Rorschach test, aka the ink blot test. We hold up a card and ask people what they see, and they tell us. It's our job to make sure we see what they see and not to judge them for their interpretation.

As a psychologist, if I can understand what they see, then I can understand who they are.

It's important for you and your husband to see what each other sees. He should continue to explain to you why he sees a beautiful, serene place until you can say, "OK, I see it too. I get it."

Likewise, you should share your experiences and feelings with him. Likely, he will soon say, "Babe, I understand. I see it too."

In your case, this is a question about how two people can witness an event and have two different experiences. It's kind of like witnessing a car accident: Everyone would see something different and be changed differently based on how they perceived it.

So share with your husband and let him do the same. Who knows? One day, you may see the same beauty in his tattoos that he sees and, likewise, maybe he'll eventually understand what you experienced.

Thanks for writing to me. Hugs!

-- Ms. Vicki

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