Marine Corps culture holds that Marines who die in combat must never be forgotten. An increasing number of Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton and other bases are living that ethic by getting memorial tattoos to comrades killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some Marines began designing their memorial tattoos when they were still in Iraq. Legend holds that the top three desires of young Marines returning from Iraq are a new motorcycle, a new tattoo and female companionship.
In that order! First things first! Yeah, they're still Jarheads!
Marine leaders tinker with traditions at their peril, never more so than when dealing with tattoos.
When Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, visited with Marines in Fallouja before Christmas, one of the first questions from the troops was about a possible change in regulations involving tattoos.
"I love that question," he told the gathering. "It's one of the most popular in the Marine Corps."
Conway said the policy would ban only new tattoos of a garish and visible nature or in areas of the body that are visible to civilians when Marines are off base — on the neck, below the wrist or near the ankle. Senior enlisted leadership suggested the change, which became effective Sunday, as a way to protect the corps' public image.
Nothing in the new policy would prohibit Marines from honoring their dead comrades with tattoos, Conway assured the troops at Camp Fallouja. A cheer went up from the more than 1,000 Marines and sailors assembled in an auditorium where Saddam Hussein once lectured his conscripts.
Just why today's Marines may be favoring memorial tattoos more than Marines of the past remains unclear. One suggestion - by a senior officer without tattoos — is that memorial tattoos show the influence of rap music, since some rap stars also get them to honor friends. Many of the Marines getting memorial tattoos already have the traditional USMC or Semper Fi or the popular abstract patterns known as "tribal" tattoos.
It's a gang thing. The Corps is more a tribe than a gang, but the reasoning is similar. Men may die, but memories live on.
I may be getting a Marine Corps tribal tattoo this year. I wish I had gotten one when I was young, but it's never too late.
By the way, the main difference between the Marine Corps and the Boy Scouts is that the Boy Scouts has adult leadership.