Last month, 123 U.S. Army reserve soldiers in the 137th Quartermaster combat-support unit finished their tour of duty in Iraq, walked off chartered buses and into an El Monte hotel ballroom where their families waited.33 year-old Joe Leal greeted them at the hotel doors. Until a couple of years ago this was his unit and he still considers many of its soldiers best friends. The list of returning soldiers for the 137th included a couple of Garcias, a Dupree, a Nakamura and a Tran. These men and women put their lives on hold - some are municipal workers, cooks, and students - to fulfill their reserve commitment.
Wounds from an incident on a tour of duty in Iraq forced Joe to retire from the unit and transition to a job as a family liaison for the Army. The attack left scars.
It's hard for Joe to string together the words to describe the incident that led to his best friend's death and to the visible dime-sized scars on his face. He doesn't want to go there, he said.
He began tattooing parts of his body to cover the scars and to illustrate some of the visions and thoughts that drove his anger. The tattoos are tributes to his friends. He embraced the pain of the tattoo needle knowing the families of his fallen comrades had gone through much more hurt.
There's an American flag tattooed on his chest. On the inside of his right arm an outline of the World Trade Center is surrounded by three figures: a weeping Statue of Liberty with blood on her hands, the angry face of Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns and a Virgin of Guadalupe.
Joe's mother is Native American and his father is Mexican. He said he only sees one color, the green of the U.S. military; he's American, a U.S. soldier proud to serve and paying tribute to the dead by helping the living.