Veteran combats PTSD with tattoos


Robin Ricca, a data analytics major at Webster, has her left forearm covered by a tattoo of a raven surrounded by dark red and black swirling designs. This new tattoo was inspired by her decision to start therapy for her PTSD and anxiety. She said it is her most compelling tattoo, and it is mysterious, complex and intimidating. Ricca said it is meant to be organized chaos.

“People see me and they see I’m very intense and they don’t understand my back story,” Ricca said. “I can come off as being rude or intense. So this tattoo is sort of the culmination of all of those things that are going on inside my head.”

At 18 years old, Ricca served as a law enforcement officer for the U.S. Air Force. She was stationed in southern England from 1986 to 1988 during the Cold War. She said she enjoyed serving but expected to have a much longer military career.

After a year and a half of service, the military discharged Ricca after she filed a sexual assault report. They sited medical reasons as basis for her release  and gave Ricca enough money to make it back to her home in Denver.

Ricca explained that in the 1980s the veterans association (VA) did not have many programs to help veterans readjust financially and mentally to civilian life. Ricca said she worked odd jobs since she had no career training other than in law enforcement, and she did not have the money to go back to school.

When she got home she did not tell her family about the sexual assault. Ricca blamed her discharge on being overweight at the time. She said that was an easy way to cover up the truth.

Robin Ricca said her most compelling tattoo is a raven surrounded by dark red and black designs. Photo by Ryan Gines

“I felt like it was my fault for a long time,” Ricca said. “I didn’t tell a soul, not one person for probably one or two years because I was so ashamed of myself. I was 19 when it happened and I’d never been away from home. I didn’t know the ways of the world, and the world is a very ruthless place.”

Ricca said at this point in her life she was not thinking about tattoos as a way to heal from her trauma. It wasn’t until she was 29-years-old that she got her first tattoo, a simple tribal design on her lower back.

After hearing Ricca’s story, her husband, Randy Wehmeyer, said he felt motivated to research sexual assault in the military to help Ricca get compensation for her discharge.

“The fact that the military covered it up pissed me off, but now she’s getting recognition from the VA for what happened to her,” Wehmeyer said. “So it’s being corrected.”

Wehmeyer said the process to get Ricca her compensation 30 plus years after serving was complicated. Ricca’s records from her service were not lost or destroyed over the years since her assault occurred, which Wehmeyer said helped Ricca’s case.

“The military had a really bad habit in cases where sexual assault would occur [of destroying records],” Wehmeyer said. “But it’s not as bad as it used to be.”

Ricca said she was upset when she was discharged instead of the man who attacked her. However, she explained this was common practice in the military when she served.

“It’s easier to get rid of the person who’s causing the trouble, the victim, than it is to get rid of the guys,” Ricca said. “Because you want the guys to kind of be a little bit reckless because they serve a purpose. And so now you’ve got this woman. She’s creating drama and trouble and they could just medical her out.”

Thirty years after her service Ricca was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety. She said she struggled with a pill addiction and drinking too much after her return from the military and did not understand many of her own actions.

In 2010 Ricca said she began thinking about tattoos as a way to memorialize what she has been through after she began going to therapy to face her trauma.  

“Tattoos felt to me like a natural way to memorialize something, use my body as a tapestry of sorts to tell a story,” Ricca said.

Ricca said each of her tattoos were not impulse decisions. She said they took months to conceptualize and have deep symbolism and importance. She said she believes bodies naturally tell a story whether it is through the lines on our faces, the color of our hair or the way we walk. She said for her, tattoos are just another way to let her body tell her story.

“Everything has a meaning for why she got it, which I think makes them more special,” Wehmeyer said. “These have been created for a purpose and she’s thought about them for a long time.”

Ricca said she wants her ink to tell a story about who she is, what she has accomplished and what she has gone through. Ricca lost her younger sister in a car accident when she was 19, her father when she was 22 and her mother in 2014.

She has tattoos that memorialize her family, her time in the military, passions, sources of happiness and the light and dark of her life. Three monarch butterflies float up her left arm to represent her sister, mother and father. She has a tattoo of a tree boa surrounded by a wilting sunflower and a healthy sunflower representing life and death. The tree boa represents Ricca nuzzled in between the two flowers of life and death. She said she is the tree boa because it is a snake that is even-tempered and patiently waits for its prey. She said while her family, the monarch butterflies, float away from her she is left alone in the tree wondering what will happen next.

Scott Plonsky, Ricca’s friend, said her tattoos are a part of her healing process but also a remembrance of where and what Ricca came from.

“I like how she pieced together her tattoos as a timeline of her life,” Plonsky said. “I look at tattoo’s as personal art that you can’t lose or have stolen and is always with you.”

Ricca said the process of getting a tattoo is therapeutic. She said getting tattoos is another part of her healing along with going to therapy. The pain of large and intricate tattoos does not bother her. She said it is more likely the tattoo artist’s arm will get tired before she maxes out from pain. Instead, she described the pain as useful.

“The pain is a part of the process,” Robin said. “The day they ever try to take pain out of tattooing is the day I stop [getting tattoos]. If you want something on your body that bad for it to be permanent, you have to undergo some sort of transformation. It feels like every time I get a tattoo I’m closer to where I want to be.”

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