‘War Ink’ Exhibit Opens Dialogue Between Veterans, Civilians

Jonathan Snyder came back from Afghanistan in 2010 with crippling survivor's guilt. The U.S. Army combat engineer struggled to relate, to share his experiences with friends and family back home.

"I thought of tattoos as a way to tell those stories," says the 26-year-old, who was born in San Jose and raised in Gilroy. "So I got a soldier's cross tattooed on my back."

Snyder is one of 24 California veterans whose story is showcased in War Ink, an online multimedia exhibit launched today—Veterans Day—that features tattoos as an expression of memories difficult for ex-military men and women to discuss.

War Ink co-creator Jason Deitch, a former Army medic and military sociologist, says the project emerged out of a need to bridge the divide between veterans and their civilian communities.

“This is both an exhibit and a forum, using tattoos as a springboard for veterans to share their stories," Deitch says.

Deitch spearheaded the exhibit with help from the Contra Costa County Library and San Jose's library system. In talking to veterans over the years, Deitch realized that so many used tattoos as signposts to memorialize events, people and difficult experiences.

Deitch, too, went under the needle while transitioning back to civilian life after a decade in the Army. The tattoo on his right forearm shows a skeleton with its disembodied skull at its feet, encased in a coffin, surrounded by Latin text translating to, "Deformed from head to heel."

The phrase, he told Metro, comes from the Roman Legion of the Republic. It refers to the way a legion draws strength from its diversity. A cohort of soldiers from Africa, Gaul, Spain and other far-flung corners of the Roman Republic is "deformed and misshapen" but strong together.

The jarring shift from combat to civilian life leaves many veterans feeling alienated, Deitch says. Tattoos are something they share in common with so many other people, a gateway to meaningful conversations.

“Every tattoo on my body tells a story,” says War Ink veteran Ron “Doc” Riviera, of Santa Cruz. “If people would just ask, they wouldn’t get a movie or a book, they would get the real thing.”

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more than 2.5 million men and women were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 7,000 of them lost their lives. The ones who returned paid in other ways as they grappled with loss and mental anguish.

Every single veteran who participated in the project said war was nothing like they expected, that no training could have prepared them for the shock and loss of combat.

War Ink walks visitors through four chapters, told by video, text and images. The first chapter, "We Were You," reminds guests of their life before the military. The second, "Changed Forever," examines the real cost of war. In "Living Scars," the focus becomes the physical and emotional wounds suffered by these veterans. The final chapter, "Living Not Surviving," tells not only of the battles veterans face back home, but of their resilience in finding a new normal.

Click here to enter the exhibit.

Here are some local veterans who participated in 'War Ink.'

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Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful article. My Dad was a lifer in the military. He served in multiple wars. He came home from the Vietnam War with PTSD, sight and hearing loss. He received a Purple Heart. He never did adjust well to civilian life.

    A few years ago, I saw a young Veteran in his early 20s walking by my door. He had just returned from the war. I went out and thanked him for his service. A month later he knocked on my door. He was crying because he just found out that his buddy had died in the war. I got him a beer, and sat outside and talked with him for hours.

    The horror this young man went through over there was painful, and frightening to hear about to say the least. I felt honored that he trusted me enough to come talk about his loss and experience over there. Sometimes all these Vets need is for someone to listen, and be there for them. After talking to him, I never did see him again, but I think of him often.

    I also met another young Vet in his 20s who served two terms in the war. He was devastated that while overseas his friend shot himself right in front of him, in the mess hall after getting a dear John letter. When he told me about that and other horrors he witnessed, I was saddened by how little help we give our Vets after they come home from serving our country.

    We need to do more than honor these heroes with Veteran’s Day. We need to make sure they receive housing, jobs, food, clothing, and top notch medical and emotional care. We owe them so much for the freedoms they give us each and everyday.

    To all the Vets out there, THANK YOU for your service to our country. May God watch over you, and keep you safe~

  2. This tattoo thing. It is one thing for a man, particularly a vet to get a tattoo. As men age their skin toughens, wrinkled and old. But the reason, often a very strong one of hard memories is a valid one. As for young women getting tattooed, especially the “sleeves” all up and down the arms ~ are you insane?
    Imagine you put on your fanciest, pretty lacy underwear and wore them ~ forever, never taking them off. What will they look like in 10 years, 15, 20 years? Yea, that’s what you’ve got all over your body. Ewwwww

    • > Ewwwww

      Things that come to mind when I see someone with a tattoo:

      “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

      “What were you thinking?”

      “How drunk were you?””

      “You can’t see what someone scribbled above your butt crack, can you.”

      Yes. I know. Judgmental.

  3. Is this what America wants for itself, to have its brave young people fight for the interests of powerful political lobbies and then come home so physically and psychologically broken that, out of desperation and heartbreak, they take to primitive body decorations?

    Iraq: we achieved a body count, a fiscal toll, and not one damn thing else. Saddam had nothing to do with 9-11, how about putting that on a tattoo?

    Afghanistan: in with a vengeful fervor but no exit plan. Does any sane American really believe the sacrifices made were in any way rewarded?

    9-11: Building 7 collapses into its own footprint in 6 seconds for reasons unknown and the 9-11 commission treats it like the fat girl at the dance. Those cave dwelling Muslims must’ve hijacked and crashed an invisible plane. Let’s ink that up.

    Syria: raise your hand if you care enough about Syria to put your kid in the path of a bullet (or a coward’s bomb), and then take a moment to realize that the Israeli lobby has readied Congress to put your kid in the line of fire.

    The only tattoo I’d like to see on a veteran is of a long row of gallows erected in front of Congress.

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