Countless organizations have been founded in the hopes of helping veterans cope with and work through their post traumatic stress disorder, trauma, and anxiety from their time in the service, but none of them stand out in the innovative way that this one does. Lewis Hunt is a veteran and founder of the non-profit organization Operation Tattooing Freedom, who served a total of 10 years in the United States Navy on deployment in Afghanistan. Upon his departure from the armed forces, he was diagnosed with PTSD and a resulting anxiety disorder, something that Hunt says is the inherent problem with serving. “Vets are horrible about talking about what bothers them,” he explains. “After years and years and years in the military, telling us to suck it up, deal with that later, mission comes first — well that becomes ingrained. While we’re all taught to be sailors or soldiers or airmen or marines, no one teaches us how to be veterans.”
Unsure of what to do, and not completely comfortable confiding in his psychiatrist, he and his wife decided to take a spur of the moment trip to Orlando, Florida in an attempt to temporarily relieve a bit of his anxiety. While there, the two wandered into a tattoo shop — which coincidentally was the home of former Ink Master star Ryan Eternal — who as it happens, had also spent time in the armed forces.
During the few hours that Hunt was in Eternal’s chair, the two veterans spoke about their time in the service, each recounting a tale of loss and hardship, of service and the inevitable baggage that came with it. Call it fate or happenstance, but something that day sparked Hunt to better himself in a way that he had never considered before — through tattoo therapy.
In the months that followed, Hunt found himself becoming more and more at ease with his PTSD, able to revisit those hours in the chair when he and Eternal exchanged stories, and finding the strength to reclaim the pain he endured as his own, to associate his traumas with the pain of getting a tattoo. Through this process, he was able to regain control of his life.
After healing his own wounds, Hunt began to wonder if other veterans could be helped using the same process. Through investigative research, he and his wife came across the short lived Spike TV series, Ink Shrinks. After contacting two of the psychiatrists who had appeared on the show — Dr. Gabe Crenshaw and Dr. Helene O’Mahoney — the three partnered to found Operation Tattooing Freedom, a non-profit organization that helps veterans from all areas of service with healing their mental trauma. “The main concept around our program is getting vets talking about stuff the normally wouldn’t, or possibly never have talked about,” Hunt explains.
Hunt, Crenshaw, and O’Mahoney work with the veteran receiving the tattoo, the tattoo artist, as well as another veteran to create a safe, judgement free space for the veteran to speak about their past traumas. “We treat the tattooing as a mechanism, to get the body relaxed, to get the mind relaxed...if I can get somebody to talk about a story they’ve never talked about, then I show them that they can talk about anything,” Hunt says. “Once they’ve done it they know they can, and once they’ve done it, they’ve now taken control of the situation. Dr. Crenshaw explained to me that when you relive something that’s psychologically painful, and you do it while you’re having pain inflicted on you, that your body re-associates that psychological trauma with the physical pain of the tattoo.”
Thus far, the foundation has enabled three veterans to undergo tattoo therapy, but Hunt estimates that the project has raised enough money to have about five or six more veterans tattooed, with plans to do so this year. As successful as the program has become in the past year and a half, there are still around 150 more veterans eagerly waiting to take part in the program.
The demand is partially due in part to veterans considering it much easier to speak with other veterans. “You need to have some type of personal connection with the people you’re trying to help, or you might as well just be another shrink,” Hunt explains. “What our guys have told us after we talked to them, is that it was so much easier to sit and talk to another vet, than it was to talk to a VA shrink who’s never heard a shot fired, or has never worn a uniform.”
With the growing demand from veterans, the foundation has had to hire new board members, and has plans to train staff members across the country in how to facilitate tattoo therapy in the coming year. “One vet came back to me after we did the therapy, and he told me that it was like a bookmark in his life,” Hunt recalls. “So that after the session when he started fighting his own demons he didn’t have to go back two years, four years, years. He didn’t have to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan in his mind. He could go back to the session when we did his tattoo, and that’s where he could go to.”
That's what keeps Hunt going, the chance to help other veterans, and aid them in their healing process. No one teaches you how to be a veteran, but it is possible to learn how to help those that have served and sacrificed for your well-being.