As the Army prepares new rules against visible tattoos, many soldiers are asking: why now?
If the U.S. Secretary of the Army has his way, incoming Army soldiers with tattoos in visible areas of the body will be ordered to have their ink removed.
The proposed rules aren’t exactly set in stone, but Secretary of the Army John McHugh has endorsed a proposal to alter Army Regulation 670-1, Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia. The altered rule would draw the line — literally — over where Army recruits could have tattoos, limiting inked zones to areas above the knees and elbows.
McHugh is expected to sign the proposal within the next 60 days, at which point the new rules would become Army policy.
Those already enlisted in the Army wouldn’t be subject to tattoo removal, as their ink will be grandfathered in, but those thinking of joining the Army will be entering into a set of rules that go against the grain of military-related tattoos.
As it stands, tattoos among current and former military members are popular forms of self-expression and patriotism. A Military Times blog post written by Jo Gould in 2011 highlighted the role tattoos play in military culture. In an interview with Staff Sgt. Jacob Wiley, the soldier described tattoos as “commonplace” in the military, specifically used to honor fallen comrades.
A 2009 post on the Army Times website indicated the same trend, highlighting the long-standing tradition among soldiers to use tattoos as military-related tributes.
“I would say, across combat arms especially, probably a good 90 percent of everyone has a tattoo,” Staff Sgt. James Campbell told the Army Times.
The new rules are expected to go into effect within two months, at which point soldiers will be subject to compliance. According to Stars and Stripes, incoming soldiers with tattoos below their elbows and knees will be asked to sit down with unit leaders to confess their tattoos.
For those looking to enlist and hoping to get a free tattoo removal out of the deal, that’s not likely a scenario to come true. All mandatory removals will come at the cost of those enlisted, according to Stars and Stripes.
What’s the deal?
For Army leaders, it’s all about military-style presentation.
In a speech to soldiers stationed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Sgt. Maj. Raymond Chandler told the crowd the move was one intended to reign in the look of Army soldiers. Referring to neck tattoos, Chandler said, “I question, ‘Why there? Are you trying to stand out?’”
The Army already prohibits tattoos on the head, neck and face. Tattoos can be allowed on the hands, so long as they “do not detract from a professional military appearance.”
According to the Daily Beast, Chandler indicated that the new uniform code, which would include rules related to tattoos, would allow soldiers to be recognized for their achievements, not their appearance.
The idea is to have tattoos primarily hidden. But considering that the military already has rules in place guarding against offensive and explicit tattoos, the question now is why it’s taking the policy a step further.
The new policy’s timing coincides with plans to roll out new Army uniforms. In an interview with ABC News, Army Spokesman Troy Rolan said the new regulation proposal change is under review.
“The Army is conducting final review of the forthcoming uniform policy — Army Regulation 670-1 (the total applying to the wear of appearance of the Army uniform) prior to its implementation,” Rolan stated. “We have nothing else to provide at this time.
A not-so-popular decision long in the making
Chandler’s push for a tattoo-free Army isn’t a move that came out of the blue. Since taking over his post in 2011, he’s become the face of a push to clean up the look of the military, which in his view necessitates the removal of visible body art.
In a 2011 post on the Army website, it paints a picture of the new “grooming regulations” recommended by Chandler.
“The changes are part of Chandler’s effort to project a more uniform and professional Army,” the site states. It goes on to indicate that, in addition to no visible neck tattoos, soldiers “will not eat, drink, smoke, or talk on cellphones while walking.”
Army soldiers have been critical of the proposal and impending rule, claiming the Army’s leadership is choosing to focus on an issue that has nothing or little to do with executing the military branch’s mission.
“I suppose that soon as the troops stop getting tattoos, and start to learn more about the Afghan culture, the Taliban will have no choice but to surrender,” a post on the military blog, “This Ain’t Hell, But You Can See It From Here” reads. “Way to focus on what’s important, SMA Chandler. Maybe a couple more police calls around the D-Fac will speed up our victory in Afghanistan, too. Just being helpful.”
The question over whether the Army will stick to the policy is up in the air. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military issued waivers to increase the pool of eligible applicants to enlist. In that case, convicted felons were given waivers to serve their country. As noted by PolicyMic’s Brett Scruton, in the case of another draft, it’s unlikely any branch of the military will be turning burgeoning soldiers away because of a forearm tattoo.
“The tattoo policy has merit in that it promotes the solidarity of military culture while weeding out aesthetically offensive depictions, which also promotes a more encompassing culture for the increasingly diverse Army. If the draft ever comes, don’t expect to avoid it with new body art though,” Scruton wrote.
The current Army tattoo policy indicates that lewd or offensive tattoos are not permitted in areas of the body exposed when wearing the proper Army uniform. Upon recruitment, photos of all tattoos are mandated to be photographed and submitted to the Army, unless it is in a “private area.”
The Army considers a tattoo to be lewd or offensive if it depicts any “extremist, indecent, sexist or racist” illustrations or messages. The Army goes on to specifically define that statement:
“Extremist tattoos or brands are those affiliated with, depicting, or symbolizing extremist philosophies, organizations, or activities. Extremist philosophies, organizations, and activities are those which advocate racial, gender or ethnic hatred or intolerance; advocate, create or engage in illegal discrimination based on race, color, gender, ethnicity, religion, or national origin; or advocate violence or other unlawful means of depriving individual rights under the U.S. Constitution, federal, or state law.”
The Army goes on further to define indecent tattoos as those that are “grossly offensive to modesty, decency or priority” or those that “shock the moral sense because of their vulgar, filthy or disgusting nature, or tendency to insight lustful thought.” Tattoos that degrade a person’s gender are also off-limits.
The army defines regulation 670-1 as one that “prescribes Department of the Army policy for proper wear and appearance of Army uniforms and insignia, as worn by officers and enlisted personnel of the active Army and the U.S. Army Reserve, as well as by former soldiers.”
Those who are held to the regulation are those enlisted in active duty in the Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve. The rules also stretch to branches of the military not commonly associated with Army rule, including the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, the Corps of Cadets and those attending the United States Military Academy.
Stars and Stripes indicates the new regulations could split up the way Regulation 670-1 is laid out. While addressing soldiers in Afghanistan, Chandler said the Department of the Army pamphlet will now indicate the rules, when they go into effect, in a clear manner.
“We’re just waiting for the secretary to sign,” Chandler said at an Army town hall meeting at Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan, according to Stars and Stripes.