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The Warrior Ink Project helps veterans share stories behind their tattoos

When Tyson Cole served in Afghanistan and Iraq, he saw “the most horrible part of humanity”. He had friends who died there.

That’s why he doesn’t see Memorial Day as a joyful occasion. “It will be a tough day for me,” he said. “It’s not a holiday for me, but a day of mourning.”

Like many other veterans, one of the ways Cole expresses his feelings about what he’s been through is through tattoos.

Every tattoo he has – about 12 in all – has its own story.

“It’s a way for me to express my own experiences and have little reminders for myself,” said Cole, who served in the U.S. Army from 1999 to 2012.

Tyson Cole, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, uses tattoos to express his experience as a veteran.  He participated in the Warrior Ink project which was created at the Menomonee Falls Public Library this spring.

He got one of his most significant tattoos after the birth of his second child, Luciana, on October 11, 2006. Mother Mary’s tattoo “was a reminder of my spiritual faith; (and) the mother of my children is still here, counting on me to come home,” he said.

“Just knowing she’s waiting for me to come is a reason to come home,” he said of his wife.

Jessica Cole saw the commonalities between her husband’s tattoos and the body art of other veterans.

“A lot of veterans have a lot of tattoos that have deep, personal meaning,” she said. She thought it would be helpful to give others the opportunity to see the tattoos and learn the stories behind them.

The Warrior Ink Project

Jessica Cole, who sits on the Menomonee Falls Public Library Board, led a community project where veterans can show off their tattoos and share the stories behind them.

The Warrior Ink Project is a photography exhibit that serves as an ongoing way to honor local veterans and their unique stories. The exhibit was first shown at the Menomonee Falls Public Library in May. It will remain there until the end of the month.

It is also scheduled to show during World War II Days at Old Falls Village, N96 County Line Road, Menomonee Falls, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 18 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 19.

Mukwonago resident Chris Flury, who served in the Navy from 1983 to 2003, has a mermaid tattoo that incorporates his wife's name, Amy, into the mermaid's tail.  Flury is part of the Warrior Ink project, an exhibition of veterans' stories and their tattoos.

For two days, Nancy Greifenhagen of Nancy G. Photography, based in Menomonee Falls, photographed the veterans with their tattoos. Cole interviewed them to learn their stories, and Greifenhagen then turned their stories and photographs into the Warrior Ink exhibit. The exhibit is designed to travel, so it can be borrowed and displayed by local organizations, groups and businesses.

Cole visited nursing homes, veterans organizations and used word of mouth to find the 10 area veterans participating in the project.

As the wife of a veteran, Cole took a particular interest in the project. The couple received a home in Menomonee Falls thanks to Operation Finally Home, a national non-profit organization that provides veterans, their families, and first responders with custom, mortgage-free homes.

“We wanted to give something back to the community,” she said.

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“I don’t know a day when I don’t think about my time”

When Melisa Krueger of Menomonee Falls joined the military, she was 25 and had a career as a correctional officer. But she knew she wanted to serve her country.

She even ignored some slightly uncomfortable feelings when she signed on the dotted line.

“I remember signing a paper (in 2005) saying, ‘I’m not a gay person,'” she recalls.

Melisa Krueger, right, served in the military before retiring from medical practice in 2015. She was involved with the Warrior Ink project which opened at the Menomonee Falls library this spring.  Krueger is pictured with his wife, Ashley Krueger-Rook (left), and daughter, ReKiyia Krueger-Rook (front).

This was during the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, a policy in effect from February 28, 1994 to September 20, 2011, under which military personnel could not discriminate against gay people – but did too. not allow anyone to be openly gay.

“It didn’t allow people to be themselves,” Krueger said. She joined the National Guard, but she wanted a career in the military, wanted to work full time and be deployed.

After signing, she went to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009. She served as a sergeant and a military police officer.

She spoke with President Barack Obama via live video when he became president on January 21, 2009.

She medically retired from the military in 2015.

“It was a life-changing decision,” she said of joining the military. His tattoo is an unforgettable memory of this decision.

On her right arm, she has a phoenix sticking out of an American flag, a reminder of her time with the Phoenix Task Force while serving in Afghanistan.

“Anyway, I don’t know a day when I don’t think about my time there. The tattoo reminds me how important it is,” she said.

She said the tattoo is also a reminder of how everything came full circle. When Obama repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011, neither she nor anyone else had to keep that secret anymore.

Melisa Krueger, who served in the military from 2005 to 2015, has tattoos to express pride in being a veteran.  She is one of the participants of the Warrior Ink project, which features veterans' tattoos and their stories.

In 2013, she married Ashley Krueger-Rook in Iowa; they now have a daughter, ReKiyia Krueger-Rook, whom they adopted through the Milwaukee welfare system in 2020. The same year she retired, same-sex marriages became legal nationwide.

Now, she says, both his wife and daughter have access to his military benefits — which include health care and education benefits — which would never have happened when she started.

“It added to my pride…that the government supported my marriage – the government, I decided, ‘I will fight for you,'” she said.

More tattoos, more stories

When tattoo artist Calen Curley meets a veteran who wants to share their story through a tattoo, he either uses the veteran’s idea as a “starting point” to decide what would look good on them, or he can design the concept. for the veteran to approve.

Curley, owner of Cal Tattoo in Menomonee Falls, said most of his loyal customers trust him a lot to bring their ideas to life. He calls it a “100% honor” and says he is “humbled every time”.

He said he enjoys working with American and patriotic imagery, as well as “harder types of imagery” such as skulls and reapers and war-related things like tanks, planes, guns, unit badges and other historically relevant items.

“I really enjoy working with veterans and hearing their many stories of service,” Curley said. “The stories they tell can sometimes be truly funny, inspiring and also incredibly disconcerting about the sometimes difficult realities of military life. It’s an added bonus to give a little something back to those who honorably serve this nation in the way to an awesome tattoo. work they can be proud of.”

Mukwonago’s Chris Flury, who served in the Navy from 1983 to 2003, said his entire right arm was a work in progress and included numerous military tattoos. His cousin, Renee Pastorius, took about six to 10 hours to finish designing the art on Flury’s arm. Pastorius owns Alter Ego Tattoo and Body Piercing in Kewaskum.

Mukwonago resident Chris Flury has a tattoo of a sextant, an instrument used in navigation.  He says the sextant means "stay focus" and "stay focus." He served in the Navy from 1983 to 2003.

A prominent tattoo is a mermaid with the name of Flury’s wife, Amy, incorporated into the tail. Flury noted that when he served he had to leave his wife, sometimes for months at a time. The tattoo acknowledges how she handled everything while she was away: paying the bills, fixing the car, and running the household.

“Distance means so little when someone means so much,” he said of the mermaid tattoo.

He also has a tattoo of a sextant, an instrument often used in navigation. Flury said the sextant tattoo means “staying the course” and “staying the course”.

Flury said he was in touch with the other veterans who participated in the Warrior Ink project. It is possible that one day he will manage to get tattooed with some of them.

“We created a bond,” he said.

Chris Flury, who participated in the Warrior Ink project, has a tattoo of a compass rose to signify

“Many people died for our freedom”

While Tyson Cole has returned home after serving, he is aware that others have not been able to return home. “A lot of people died for our freedom,” he said.

Seeing people go against some of these freedoms is difficult for him. “The biggest was during Black Lives Matter (protests) when people tried to shut down the protests,” he said.

“I see a country divided and anti-free speech,” he said. “Our friends are dead…it’s a tough pill to swallow.”

He said he would like to see the community come together. “Community is something we share and participate in,” he said.

Supporting veterans is crucial, he said, citing statistics on how many veterans die by suicide every day.

In 2016, the US Department of Veterans Affairs reported that an average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day.

“They need to be heard. We have stories, and more stories will come out,” Cole said, emphasizing the importance of supporting, listening to and learning from veterans’ stories.

For more information about the Warrior Ink Project or to organize an exhibit, call Library Director Jacqueline Rammer at 262-532-8931 or email her at [email protected]

Cathy Kozlowicz can be reached at 262-361-9132 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @kozlowicz_cathy.

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