World News America

Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Wednesday, 18 August 2010 12:11 UK

The man who makes sure dead marines get home

By Kristin Wilson Keppler
BBC World News America, Jacksonville, North Carolina

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Jesse Mays explains why 'meat tags' are so popular among soldiers heading off to Iraq or Afghanistan

It is a grim reminder of the cost of war. But for marines based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, getting a meat tag - a tattooed copy of their vital information inked into their skin - means paying a visit to Jesse Mays before they head off to war.

"They're used to identify a corpse. They're not for the living."

Jesse Mays is sitting on a stool in what he calls his "operating room" - a small room next to a vault. This building used to be a bank, he says. The heavy round vault door sits open, now filled with filing cabinets and canvases.

Lying shirtless on the black leather table next to him is Gunnery Sergeant Mike "Gunny" Greer, one arm raised over his head. Spiked restraints hang from the sides of the table. Jesse laughs and says they are just for fun, "unless you fidget too much."

Jesse Mays
Jesse Mays has done over 30,000 tattoos in his career

The Sleeping Dragon Tattoo Parlor is in the small town of Jacksonville, just outside Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base. Inside the Dragon, as Jesse calls it, Bob Marley is both on the stereo and on the walls.

Huge, technicolour paintings of the singer share wall space with samples of Jesse's tattoos.

Everything from hula girls to Celtic crosses to what the marines call EGAs - eagles, globes and anchors - the emblem of the Marine Corps.

He is an artist at heart, he says, but he got tired of sitting around waiting for paint to dry. He will draw anything a customer wants, but it seems these days, the request is always the same. A meat tag.

"Meat tags are so they can make it home," Jesse says. "No matter what. So someone can grieve over them."

Taken from information that soldiers wear on metal tags around their necks, meat tags go one step further. Jesse tattoos that same information on their bodies, usually on their ribcage just under their armpit.

"I've done some tags that got it looking like their skin is splayed open, with a chain wrapped around their ribs and the dog tags hanging outside the skin," he explains, his needles injecting Gunny's religion and blood type into his side.

"Or there's ones that looks like I carved it on their bones. But, mostly, they just want the basic information."

Boots, neck and middle

The men - and boys, some as young as 19 - he tattoos all share certain characteristics. Shaved heads, smoking cigarettes, and an open defiance of death, even as they ask for a tattoo that openly acknowledges the very real chance that they might die.

"Flack jackets are amazing things," explains Lance Corporal Andrew Sichling, who isn't opting to get the tattoo tonight, but may do later.

"I understand why guys get 'em. If you get blown up, this," his hands frame his torso, "might be the only part of you that comes home."

Mike Greer's tattoo
Gunny Greer's meat tag includes personal details such as his religion

For the marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, meat tags are nothing new.

"I did it because it's a tradition. I don't plan on getting blown up and anyone having to find my parts," Gunny says.

Gunny is a seasoned veteran. He has done tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and has the word "warrior" tattooed across his abdomen as testament to his survival.

He explains that for him, getting meat tagged is personal and means something.

"It's not about dying. It's identification. Boot, neck, and middle," he says. "It's like a baseball player getting his number. This is my number."

'God's work'

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, Jesse does more and more meat tagging. It is not morbid, he insists, but practical.

"That's why we have a memorial to the unknowns, right? Couldn't identify them," he says.

"They can identify my boys. I'm doing God's work here. His family is going to find him."

David Moore walks into the Sleeping Dragon with his wife Samantha. They have left their nine-month old son at home for the evening while David gets tattooed. He is getting shipped out in March.

"They always tell us not to wear dogs with gear because it's going to hurt. It's like metal digging into your neck," he says, rubbing his bare skin where his dog tags would have been.

"You wear another tag in your left boot, but that's no good if you don't have your leg no more."

I'd rather me go down than a whole patrol get killed just because I missed something
David Moore

David clenches his fist and closes his eyes as he gets tagged, trying not to move. Any flinch elicits a gentle scolding from Jesse.

"Hold still," he'll admonish, even though he understands why they do it.

Any place on the body that is sensitive enough to feel the slightest touch is going to hurt the most with the needles.

"Pain is just weakness leaving the body. What does not kill you makes you stronger... that's a marine," Jesse says.

He tries to distract David from the needles. "What's your function in the Marine Corps, son?"

"Sweeper, sir," David says.

The sound of the tattooing gun stops. Jesse pauses. It is unexpected, even for him. He clears his throat, regaining his composure.

Mike Greer
Sgt Greer served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan

This job commands respect. Sweepers, David says, are the men who walk along the Humvees with metal detectors, sweeping the area for hidden bombs.

"His job is to take that grenade, to die before all those other people," Jesse explains.

He looks up and sees Samantha sitting in the chair by her husband's head. He lowers his head to his hands, covering his face.

Later, he will scold himself for saying that in front of her. "You should not talk about dying in front of the family," he says.

Modern day Samurai

But for David Moore, death is a part of the job, even if he is talking about his own.

"I'd rather me go down than a whole patrol get killed just because I missed something. Didn't do that one little part of my job," he shakes his head, like he's trying to banish the thought from his mind.

"I think about dying. It's always there, but I think about it more in the training, and what I can do better to keep them safe and come home," he says, taking a long slow draw on a cigarette that's almost always present.

"If they come home and I don't, I'm OK with that."

Jesse says he has known too many boys who have not come back. He walks out the front door and sits outside, chatting with a few of "his marines" who are walking by.

He calls them modern day Samurai. "Warriors, that's what they are," he says.

"If the worst happens, I'll get somebody come in here and tell me about how someone bit it.

"And it's always because of some damned roadside bomb, not because someone manned up," he says, and then takes a long pause. "That's all I want to say about that."

"I just tell 'em to keep their heads down. I know where they're going."



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