In September 2007, Joe Gracia was a gunner in the turret of the lead Humvee in a convoy in southeastern Afghanistan. When the improvised explosive device went off, he remembers a blast of sand, but that's it.
“I don't really remember any sound, which is weird,” Gracia says.
Twenty-seven blood transfusions, 17 surgeries and years of rehabilitation later, Gracia is as healed as he's going to get. He earned an honorable discharge and a Purple Heart, but he'll be disabled for life.
“It's not so bad,” he says. “The driver, who was 19, he died.”
Gracia rolls up his right pant leg to show his prosthetic leg. Then he rolls up his left pant leg to reveal a tribal tattoo. The patterns begin at his ankle and continue up the outside of his leg to his knee where there's a bold African symbol that represents “oneness with god.” Every different pattern, he says, has meaning. When he's done, the tattoo will go up to his armpit.
The piece is a traditional Polynesian hand-tap tattoo by Sulu'ape Angela Bolson at Big City Tattoo in North Park. Gracia told Bolson he wanted a hand-tap tattoo like the traditional pieces given to Hawaiian warriors as rites of passage. She helped him come up with patterns with the right meanings. Now, when people ask about the tattoo, he tells the story of his life as a soldier and the spirituality that came afterward.
“It's a badge of honor,” Gracia says, “an accomplishment—just like if I were wearing medals on my chest.”