Tattoos signify permanent connection with military family

Senior Chief Quartermaster Henry Nicol, from Hemet, Calif., displays his tattoos aboard USS John C. Stennis on April 6, 2016.


By KELDA PHARRIS | American News, Aberdeen, S.D. | Published: October 15, 2017

ABERDEEN, S.D. (Tribune News Service) — Rich in history, military tattoos almost always have deep personal meaning.

Some are emblematic of a branch of service or a unit or a place somebody was stationed. Some — like prisoner of war or missing in actions insignias — serve as reminders.

Others are more macabre, like having numbers tattooed on body parts for possible identification in the event of a worst-case scenario while in battle.

Many veterans are reticent to discuss the stories of their tattoos or even admit to having ink. But for Don Whittlinger and Kristin Outtrim, the stories — and that larger connection to a military family — are meaningful enough to share.

Whittlinger, 90, has moved on from a silly bet made 70 years ago that ended in his first and only tattoo.

"There's times I've regretted having it and times It doesn't make a difference. I'd recommend kids don't get it," Whittlinger said with a smile while visiting at his neatly kept home in Aberdeen.

The tattooed image of a dagger and rose might be an all-but-forgotten smudge of aged ink on his forearm, but memories of his time in the Navy, most notably alongside his brother, will never be forgotten.

The tattoo, "came about due to leaving Guam, going back to Pearl (Harbor). Somebody got the idea we'd all throw an amount in a kitty. When we got to Pearl, in order to get anything out of the kitty, you either got a (hair) permanent or a tattoo," Whittlinger said.

He chose a tattoo. His brother, Gerhart "G.J." Whittlinger, got the perm.

Don Whittlinger thinks his brother got the better deal. They served in the Navy together from 1945 to 1949.

"The amazing thing, we as brothers spent the full four years together. This was even after the Sullivan brothers," Whittlinger said.

The five Sullivan brothers Whittlinger referenced were stationed together in the Navy during World War II. They all died during a sinking of their ship, the USS Juneau. The event called into question whether brothers should serve in the same unit.

But the Whittlinger brothers made it home and stayed close.

"We nicknamed him Gay for a while, but then all of a sudden, that wasn't (an acceptable nickname)," Whittlinger said.

From them on, the younger Whittlinger went by G.J. He died about 16 years ago, Don Whittlinger said.

Now what remains of those Navy days is a faded tattoo and an old black-and-white photo that shows the two young men, fresh from boot camp, wearing Navy uniforms.

"I've had it so many years I don't think much of it," Whittlinger said of the tattoo that's now nearly indiscernible.

"As you grow older and get older, things disappear. It was just one of those funny things, silly Navy things."

Not all military-inspired tattoos are an insignia or a remembrance of some far-off deployment. Although just as meaningful, some are punched into skin as a reminder of the bonds solidified when serving.

Outtrim, 37, is the commander of the Army Reserve 452nd Ordnance Co. and works as a civilian as the unit administrator. She was tattooed March 21.

"Smile everyday" is displayed in black ink in a blend of cursive and print, just like a person's handwriting. It's on the inside of her right wrist. She wanted it to be visible as she worked through recent losses.

"The significance — we lost a soldier... so I'd been in command since 2014, and since then we've lost two soldiers in vehicle accidents," Outtrim said.

The first was Jacob Dahl of Castlewood, who died in a crash October 2014. Then Wyatt Feltman of Grafton, N.D., died March 9 in a wreck. Both were members of the Aberdeen-based Reserve unit.

"I just needed that reminder every day. It gets hard some days," Outtrim said.

Outtrim joined the military, as many do, to help pay for college.

"However, after basic training I had a whole new reason. The patriotism, the dedication they instill in you is beyond words. So my whole reasoning completely changed. You know it's a pretty elite group and when you say military family … people who come to this unit tend to stay a long time, so the bonds you form are just there."

©2017 the American News (Aberdeen, S.D.)
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