By Melissa Arnold
Each Veterans Day, the country pauses to recognize the men and women who have served as members of the military. For some, it’s a day of pride and they’re humbled to be recognized. Others live with trauma, injury or regret and prefer not to talk about their service years.
Regardless of their circumstances or histories, the Northport-East Northport Public Library is honoring all veterans with a unique photography exhibit for the month of November.
The exhibit, titled Ink Stories: Symbols of Service, focuses on sharing veterans’ memories and experiences through photographs of their tattoos.
“My father was a Vietnam veteran who had tattoos. When he returned from Vietnam, he struggled to find acceptance in the community [because he was in the war],” said Kathryn Heaviside, community services librarian at the Northport-East Northport Public Library. “Hearing stories from his service and the stories behind the tattoos, I felt confident I would be able to find others who were willing to share.”
Heaviside said that art exhibits focusing on tattoos have been held in other places around the United States and believed the concept would be a great fit for the library because of its commitment to veteran outreach and proximity to the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The exhibit took nearly a year to plan, with flyers, email blasts, social media posts and word of mouth used to find local veterans.
“It was slow going at first, but once the word started to get out, we had more and more responses. The concept was really well-received by the veterans,” Heaviside said.
In all, 34 veterans came forward to participate in Ink Stories. They include 33 men and one woman from all branches of the military. The majority served in Vietnam, while others were involved in the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion or the modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Among them is Eugene Casper, a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran from Ronkonkoma. Casper didn’t want to go to college and enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school in 1968.
“I knew I was going to end up in Vietnam, but I wanted to see what it was all about. I was 18, young and dumb,” Casper recalled. He spent one year in Vietnam, where he was exposed to Agent Orange and now lives with cancer and other health issues.
While many of Casper’s fellow soldiers got their first tattoo during basic training, it took decades for him to get inked.
“When I got back from the war, I had a bad taste in my mouth and pushed a lot of my feelings and experiences aside. But years later, this stuff will always catch up to you. I reached out for help at the VA and decided to get my first tattoo when I was 50.”
That first tattoo, the POW/MIA symbol on his left shoulder, was eventually followed by an eagle with an American flag background and his dates of service. Most recently, his granddaughter opened her own tattoo shop and did a piece on Casper’s forearm depicting a helmet, boot and rifle with the phrase “All gave some; some gave all.”
Casper and the other veterans came to the library over several scheduled days, where they filled out questionnaires about their experiences before posing for photos. Chris Cordone, a Huntington-based wedding photographer, volunteered to photograph the veterans for free.
“They would enter the room to be photographed and just totally open up. Some would cry,” Heaviside said about the photo sessions, which she described as emotional and moving. “The vets were thrilled to talk about their tattoos and share their stories. For some of them, it was the first time they had spoken about their history in 40 years. Some of them were hesitant, but once they started to share, they didn’t want to stop. I’ve formed a real bond with each of them through this experience.”
The exhibit is comprised of individual 24-by-36-inch framed posters featuring photos of each veteran, his or her tattoos and some of their own reflections as written and designed by Heaviside. Each veteran will also be presented with a blanket made by the library’s teen volunteers.
Casper was thrilled to be a part of the project after seeing an ad for it in a local newspaper. “I thought it would be a good thing to do. The more people that get to see what we went through, the better,” he said. “I’m 69 years old now, I have nothing to hide and I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m proud to be a Vietnam veteran.”
He added that seeking support at the VA made all the difference for his well-being. “There is help out there for everything, but you have to look and you have to reach for it. Talk to your friends, talk to your neighbors, tell people what’s going on,” he said. “You don’t have to deal with things alone.”
Ink Stories: Symbols of Service is on view at the Northport Public Library, 151 Laurel Ave., Northport and the East Northport Public Library, 185 Larkfield Road, E. Northport through Nov. 30. Identical exhibits are found at each library.
The public is invited to an opening reception at the Northport Public Library this Friday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. For library hours and more information, call 631-261-6930 or visit www.nenpl.org.