Not only will U.S. Army soldiers not have the right to bare arms like their Marine Corps comrades, but future soldiers better make sure that, even when covered by uniforms, those arms (and legs, faces, necks and hands) are blank.
Earlier this month, Army Secretary John McHugh approved a revision to the Army’s grooming and uniform policy that will dramatically change the Army’s stance on grooming issues, including tattoos.
The updated Army Regulation 670-1 will apply to tattoos, fingernail polish and general uniform wear, but it’s the tattoo policy that is generating the most buzz from junior and senior soldiers alike. Though the full policy has not been released, an official statement from the Army said that the new policy will be similar to pre-2006 policies, which banned soldiers from having tattoos on their hands and necks, rules that were loosened in order to meet recruiting goals.
“In corporate America we wouldn’t be dinged for tattoos,” one Army Captain told us. “Tattoos are a cultural norm nowadays. They’re no longer taboo. My 65-year-old aunt just got a tattoo.”
Army officials have said that, in addition to barring new recruits from having tattoos in visible locations such as the hands, face and neck or below the knees or elbows, the policy will likely state that soldiers already serving could face punishment and be forced to remove (at their own expense) any tattoos found on their bodies that are deemed indecent, sexist, racist or extremist. The policy change has even senior soldiers, ahem, up in arms.
“I completely agree with the Secretary of the Army as far as tattoos on the hands, neck, face because they can’t be covered up,” said the Captain, who has tattoos below his elbows himself. “But removing the tattoos will be at the commander’s discretion and soldier’s expense. That’s an arbitrary rule. It’s just unrealistic. For commanders to enforce such a rule, it would have to be done across the board. A battalion commander is not going to tell one guy to have his tattoo removed and not tell 20 others to remove theirs. And then, the amount of time the soldier would have to have to have off to heal afterwards would decrease productivity. As an officer with tattoos myself, if I have to order someone to remove his tattoos, that’s a double standard.”
An Army Master Sergeant echoed the Captain’s concerns, saying: “There is no base line if it’s at the commander’s discretion. Just like in life, some commanders are more liberal while others more conservative. I have a tattoo of a girl on my arm. Is that appropriate or is it sexist?”
An Army Sergeant Major we spoke with agreed, saying, “What one person deems as racist, sexist or offensive, another person might deem to be fine. If a pagan soldier has a pentagram tattoo, would that offend a Christian commander? If someone has a cross tattoo, is that offensive to a pagan? And as we transition into incorporating more women into combat arms, we are likely to see more soldiers who find other soldiers’ existing tattoos offensive in units that have not had females in the past.”
The Army hinted last fall that the new policy was coming. Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler said then that the idea was to foster a uniformly neat and well-groomed appearance among troops.
The Sergeant Major we spoke with said he understands Chandler’s concerns: “In certain circumstances, there are some tattoos – on the neck, face and hands – that are unsightly and do not present a military appearance, but if you can cover the tattoos with a military uniform, they should not be a problem. I would say no tattoos above the clavicle, on the hands or anywhere that can be seen when the soldier is in dress or duty uniform, and that Tricare should pay for removal of existing tattoos that are deemed offensive. If the soldier got the tattoos after the policy changed, then he’d be disobeying a military order and liable for UCMJ action.”
But the Master Sergeant we spoke with said he thinks that even a limited policy change is misguided. “From what I have seen your hard-charging soldiers are generally tattooed. When sleeves and pants are worn the tattoos can’t be seen, so who are we trying to keep our hidden bodies professional for?”
The specific rules adopted in 2006 regarding tattoos can be found in AR 601-210, AR 670-1, AR 600-20, but much of the guidance is for new recruits. However, AR 670-1, chapter 1-8, paragraph e notes that the Army requires that all tattoos be evaluated for size, location and decency. Visible tattoos or brands on the face and head are prohibited. Currently, tattoos or brands on the back of the neck and on the hands that are not extremist, indecent, sexist or racist, but are visible in the Class A uniform are authorized; however prejudicial, vulgar, profane, racist, sexist or offensive tattoos are prohibited.
The Army Captain we spoke with added that the policy change seems to reflect an ethos espoused by an older generation, one that is out of step with the majority of those in the Army today and those that the Army will seek to recruit.
“O-5s, O-6s and older, their generation was raised thinking that having tattoos meant that you were sub-standard person. Those are the people making these rules, but that’s not how people think anymore. Some of the best NCOs I’ve seen have had tattoos below the knees and elbows.”
And those NCOs, officers and junior enlisted are in good company in United States. This 2012 poll found that one in five American adults of all ages is tattooed. Among millennials, adults who were born after 1980, the number with tattoos is even higher. This Pew report found that about 40 percent of millennials are inked. With 75 percent of young Americans already unfit for service, the new Army policy could leave recruiters with a very small pool of potential recruits.
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