Tattoo-covered soldiers, their ink showing even in uniform, became a common sight over the last decade, reflecting both changing styles and the relaxed standards used to boost enlistments, but with the wars almost over and the Army preparing to downsize, body art is on the way out.
Almost immediately after taking his post in 2011, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler began talking about tightening the Army’s uniform and grooming policy. Changes to the rules, which have been a source of speculation and debate among soldiers, have just been confirmed by Chandler to include restrictions on tattoos that will roll back the more lenient guidelines used during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The incoming policy will prevent new soldiers who have tattoos that reach below their elbow or their knee or above their neckline from enlisting.
The initial wave of reaction on military blogs and social media has been largely negative. Many commenters cite the tattoo standard as antiquated and a poor indication of a soldier’s ability to perform the job. Others say body art has become a large part of the Army’s own culture, resurrecting an argument that surfaced when rumors of the new tattoo policy started circulating in 2011.
While the changes are unpopular with some, they have not come as a surprise. Chandler has stated his ideas openly and encouraged discussion. When he asked for feedback on his Facebook page In 2011, many wrote in to voice their support, singling out neck tattoos in particular as looking unprofessional and citing the need for uniformity of appearance.
The most divisive aspect of Chandler’s original proposal in 2011 concerned the fate of soldiers who had been allowed to enlist with tattoos that would be prohibited under new restrictions. At the time, the possibility that those soldiers might be forced to remove their ink or leave the Army was not ruled out. But the new rules take a more moderate position on the issue, in what may be a concession to the negative reaction within the ranks at talk of combat veterans being penalized or forced out for having tattoos that were allowed when they signed up.
Serving soldiers who were recruited under the current policy would be grandfathered and allowed to keep their tattoos as long as they do not contain any racist, sexist, or extremist words or symbolism.
Upon the adoption of the new system, all soldiers would be required to self-identify tattoos to their unit leaders. Those whose tattoos violate the policy under which they were recruited would be required to pay for tattoo removal themselves, Chandler said.
Chandler said tightening the grooming code was an effort to promote recognition of soldiers’ individual achievements rather than having them stand out for their appearance.
Some observers have noted the Army’s habit of changing its policies depending on its recruiting needs. The previous change was in 2006, when the Army loosened requirements on tattoos during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan war efforts. Under those regulations only tattoos that covered the face or head were banned.
This time around, the policy shift comes amid U.S. government preparations to downsize the military as troops withdraw from Afghanistan and the looming prospect of severe funding cuts to the armed services.
Budget cuts first enacted in 2011 have finally started straining Army resources. President Obama’s Budget Control Act of 2011 projects $487 billion in military spending cuts over the next decade. As a result, this past June, Gen. Ray Odierno announced that the Army will cut 80,000 active-duty troops over the next five years, which constitutes the largest reduction in combat forces since World War II.
The changes to the tattoo rules are part of a larger review and reconsideration of Army dress code, as Chandler solicited veterans’ input on a variety of concerns such as earrings for women in uniform.
The policy changes are expected to be approved by Secretary of the Army John McHugh within 30 to 60 days, Chandler said.
—With reporting from Hanqing Chen
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