By Aaron Glantz
Inter Press Service
Monday 10 September 2007
San Francisco - Dane and April Somdahl own the Alien Art tattoo parlor on Camp Lejeune Boulevard - just outside the sprawling Marine Corps base of the same name in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
In an interview from the back of her shop, April talked about how her customers' tastes have changed since George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
As the war approached, she said, "The most popular tattoos were eagles and United States flags. Those were coming in so often and, you know, everybody was like 'I gotta get my flag.'"
Then, a year into the war, the Somdahls noticed a new wave of Marines coming in to get information from their military dog tags tattooed onto their bodies. Most said they wanted so called "meat tags" so their bodies could be identified when they die.
"We went through over a year of meat tags, but then that passed too," she said. "Now we are seeing a lot of memorial tattoos. Even the wives are getting memorial tattoos - moms and dads in their fifties too. And in a lot of cases they're getting their first tattoos. And they're saying 'We didn't think we would ever get a tattoo, but this one is to remember my son.'"
Because of the changing needs of their clientèle, the Somdahls no longer blast rock and roll music inside the shop. Instead, the artists work in silence.
"The mood has died," April told IPS.
"For our employees to do tattoos of photos of fallen heroes, fallen friends, it plays hard on them," she said. "It makes it so our artists are depressed. The tattoo isn't done just for decoration or just for fun anymore. The tattoo has become a solid symbol of their feelings and a lot of it dealing with the war."
The mood is particularly heavy because the Somdahls have had a death in their own family. On Feb. 20, April's younger brother, Sergeant Brian Jason Rand, shot himself under the Cumberland River Centre Pavilion in Clarksville outside Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Officials at Fort Campbell refused to comment on Brian Rand's suicide, saying they don't discuss individual soldier's deaths. But the military brass has been investigating what seems like an increasing trend of soldiers taking their own lives.
Last month, the Army issued a document called the "Army Suicide Event Report, 2006" showing suicides were at their highest point in 26 years.
"There was a significant relationship between suicide attempts and number of days deployed" in Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries where troops are participating in the war effort, the report said. The same pattern seemed to hold true for those who not only attempted, but succeeded in killing themselves.
The Army confirmed 99 suicides among active duty soldiers during 2006, up from 88 the year before.
Brian Jason Rand was born Dec. 9, 1980 into a military family on base at Camp Lejeune. Throughout his life, he had always been in and around the military. He had deployed twice to Iraq, returning for the final time on Jan. 2, 2007.
It was during his first tour that April noticed a change. She chatted with him every evening over the internet. In the afternoon, while it was nighttime in Baghdad, she would sit in front of her computer in North Carolina, hook up a microphone and talk with her brother, trying to keep his spirits up.
But she could tell her brother was having an emotional meltdown.
"He would say 'April, I'm having terrible nightmares'," she said. "He told me about nightmares about dead Iraqis, their souls and spirits haunting him, following him, telling him to do stuff, and it got scarier and scarier."
April said she talked Brian to sleep nearly every night during his deployment - trying to keep him alive by giving him something to live for.
"I would talk to him in a very quiet voice and make sure not to make any sudden noises," she said. "I would tell him the grass is still green over here. The sky is still blue. Just close your eyes and picture the lawn that we laid on staring up at that sky. And it's still there. When you get back, when your job is done, when you do everything that they ask you to do, come back to me and we'll lay on the grass and we'll stare at the sky and we don't have to talk about anything."
But when Brian returned home from Iraq it wasn't the end of the story. He was emotionally unstable. His family said he knew he had problems and sought help from the military.
After he retuned from Iraq, for example, he filled out a post-deployment health assessment form, admitting to combat-related nightmares, depression and mood swings.
"When someone checks 'yes' to these types of things, clearly they should be evaluated for mental help," his widow, Dena Rand, told Clarksville's Leaf Chronicle newspaper, "but according to them, he never requested help."
Brian Rand never had a chance to see a psychiatrist. Instead of giving him the help he needed, the Army deployed him to Iraq a second time.
"We didn't have very many phone conversations at all during his last deployment," his sister April said. "The phone calls only came when he was spiraling out of control so it was very difficult to figure out what he was trying to communicate."
When he returned Fort Campbell for the final time in January 2007, his family said he had completely changed.
"He'd flip on a dime," Dena Rand recalled, describing scenarios, in public and private, which made him paranoid and agitated.
The Leaf Chronicle reported Dena Rand said her husband "was either intensely happy or desperately sad; there was no middle ground, which was nothing like the man she married, whom she described as a gentle person who would 'drop anything he was doing to help anyone.'"
On Feb. 8, Dena called the police when Jason started screaming at his stepdaughter, Cheyanne.
"Mrs. Rand stated that her husband was yelling at her daughter," Officer Mathew Campbell wrote in his report for the Clarksville police department. "Mrs. Rand went upstairs to make him stop and she stated that he turned and smacked her in the face. Mr. Rand was gone upon arrival."
About the same time, Jason called his sister, April.
"He said, 'Oh, I can see everything April. It all makes perfect sense now. I know what I have to do and it makes so much sense. I have to die. I have to leave the physical realm and leave earth and go up in heaven and be part of the Army of God and I've got to stop this war and save my guys here. And the best way I can do that is to do it up in heaven 'cause I can't do anything while I'm down here.'"
April told me she tried to talk her brother out of suicide. She mentioned that Dena was pregnant with their first child together. That child is going to need a father, she argued.
But Brian wouldn't listen.
"He said the baby will be fine," April said. "The baby will be taken care of ... and then he started talking about his favourite music and then from his favourite music he goes to saying 'You're going to have to know this. You're going to have to know my favourite movie. When I am gone you're going to want to watch my favourite movie, April. My favorite movie is Mousetrap.'"
Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 20, the Clarksville police department received a call about a body lying facedown under an entertainment pavilion on the banks of the Cumberland River, with a shotgun beside it.