By CHARLIE REED | Stars and Stripes | Published: May 24, 2012
EDITOR’S NOTE: The use of the double lightning bolt logo, like the one in the tattoo depicted with this story, by Marine Scout Snipers was an ongoing controversy at the time this was written because of its resemblance to an insignia that was used by the Nazi SS. When a 2010 photo of Marines in Afghanistan posing with a flag bearing the emblem went public in 2012, Marine Corps Commandant James Amos said, “On behalf of the Marine Corps and all Marines, I apologize to all offended by this regrettable incident,” and ordered commanders to investigate. The investigation concluded that the Marines made a “naïve mistake,” and none of them were disciplined because, the Corps said, there was no malicious intent.
Nat Small’s four years in the U.S. Marine Corps gave him life experience beyond that of most 23-year-old men.
The tattoo on his left forearm embodies a combination of sorrow, guilt and perspective, earned in combat, that he can’t escape. He doesn’t want to escape.
He risked his life. He killed. He suffered. He accomplished the mission. Almost always.
The pain washes over him in waves, sometimes troubling, other times beautiful and poignant.
Small is a decorated Marine, awarded the Bronze Star with “V” in late 2011 for bravery and skill on the battlefield during the spring and summer of 2010.
His tattoo is a reminder of what he lost June 22, 2010, the day he was pulled off the front lines of Afghanistan with the blood of his fallen friend, Cpl. Claudio Patino, soaking through his fatigues.
During the battle, Patino crested a ridge ahead of his fellow Marines, exposing himself to enemy fire so they wouldn’t have to. Patino died as Small cradled him that day in a tiny village in southern Afghanistan. But the memory of the 22-year-old California native is preserved in the ink-on-flesh memorial on Small’s arm — a lightning bolt double “S” centered by “Patino.”
Small considers his tattoo a fitting tribute to Patino, a fellow Marine scout sniper. The Corps’ elite marksmen are tasked with precision assassin-style shooting missions.
“I talk about Patino every chance I get,” Small said. “I tell people what he did for me and what he did for us. I want people to know.”
Small has since left the Corps and moved to South Dakota with his wife to start a pressure washing business in the state’s bubbling and rugged oil fields.
Over the past two years, he has developed a close relationship with Patino’s parents, who attended Small’s Bronze Star ceremony in Washington last fall.
The tattoo is forever a reminder of Patino. Small doubts he’ll ever see a day he doesn’t think about it.
He also wears Patino’s headband below the tattoo, twisted around his wrist. A red piece of cloth stained with blood, sweat and tears.
Those are the things he keeps.