The Tattoo that Almost Got Me Thrown in Military Prison

While I was in the Army, I was threatened with military prison three times—once because of the article in the Seattle P-I, once because I was reading an unauthorized Communist biography, and once because of a tattoo. I got the tattoo during my post-deployment furlough, and it was meant to be a statement. (For some reason, I had grown some brass balls during Afghanistan even though I spent most of my time on base.)

tattoo
The picture isn’t the actual tattoo, partly because the curvature of my calf distorts the image but mostly because my calves are hairy.

To the uninitiated eye, it might even seem somewhat patriotic. But the mark at the top of the tattoo is not a symbol of the Korean armed forces as a source of pride. The two characters beneath the star and anchor are read as gunyong, and the symbol as a whole can be found stamped on all military property. (Gunyong, directly translated, means “military-use.”) The text beneath builds on the symbol.

First line—Product name: Chun, Young Jin
Second line—Inventory No.: 04-7200XXXX
Third line—Date of manufacture: 2004 January 29
Last line—Date of expiration: 2006 January 28*

The tattoo was meant to be a protest of the Army’s treatment of conscripts. The officers didn’t see conscripts as human beings; we were nothing more than tools in their eyes. They didn’t care if we ate or slept, and it was no concern of theirs if we broke physically or mentally. A broken hammer is inconsequential when you have 600,000 more in stock with new shipments coming in every month.

It was the month before I became a sergeant that I got caught with the tattoo. I normally didn’t wear my shorts because they were practically camo daisy dukes, but the barracks in the Battle Simulation Center was like a hotbox and summers in Daegu are oppressive. I was pulling out my bedding to get ready for bed when the noncom in charge of the support staff spotted it.

“Oi, corporal,” he said. “What’s that?”

“What’s what, sir?” I replied.

“That,” he said, walking over to me and pointing at my leg.

“A tattoo, sir,” I said, feeling cheeky.

“When did you get it?”

“A couple of months ago, sir.”

“You can’t get a tattoo while you’re a soldier. It’s against regulations.”

“I didn’t know I couldn’t do that, sir.”

He started looking at it closely. “What the hell is this supposed to mean? Is this some sort of protest?”

I shrugged. I should have said something, but I didn’t feel like it. I was tired.

“I should report you.”

I shrugged again, finished unfolding my bedding, and went to bed.

Nothing happened afterward. I knew the noncom had no influence and that he wouldn’t report me. He wasn’t the right personality type, something that I understood really well by that time.

* The inventory number is my dog tag number.** The date of manufacture and expiration are the date of my induction and discharge.

** I X-ed out the last four numbers for no particular reason. The first two numbers are the year I was inducted (’04), the first number after the dash indicates that I was a conscript (7), the second indicates that I was trained at a divisional training center in the SROKA (Second ROK Army) area (2), and the rest of the numbers indicate that I was the XXXXth conscript for that year and area (00XXXX).

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4 Responses to The Tattoo that Almost Got Me Thrown in Military Prison

  1. bighominid says:

    I had forgotten whether the romanization “Chun” meant “천” or “전.” I suppose “전” is the more common surname (actually, is any Korean named “천”? no worries—I just answered my own question by going to Wikipedia, which claims that the “천” surname exists, but is the least used of all the major surnames; barely 100,000 people have it).

    Good thing that wasn’t a tat of two male horses 69-ing. God only knows what sort of trouble you’d have been in then. “Uh, yeah… that’s a metaphor for army life. Or something.”

    Like

    • Young says:

      The only 천씨 I’ve met I actually met while in Afghanistan. He was the squad leader for the Support Company for whom I got shuffled back and forth between companies.

      I don’t know why anyone would get a tattoo of two male horses 69-ing, but it probably wouldn’t have led to any trouble. Probably a few weird looks, though.

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  2. Had no idea you’ve finally published your amazing book. Just ordered it. The “must read” of the century!

    Like

    • Young says:

      Marilyn, I’m sorry. I should’ve let you know sooner. Thanks for ordering the book. It’s going to be very different from the draft that you read.

      Like

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