The Army reverses course on its restrictions on tattoos. It’s a wise decision.

tattoo story 2What words come to mind when you think of a soldier? Courageous most likely. Patriotic. Brave. Strong, both mentally and physically. Heroic. A list of adjectives that piece themselves together to create an image of the ideal warrior.

As an institution, the army has grown to accept differences in race, gender, and now sexual orientation of its members, differences which, in the past, did not conform to the standard. Yet despite this, army leadership still deemed it right to deny enlistment and promotion for tattoos that did not meet strict criteria, because tattoos do not conform to the image of those in uniform.

It is wrong that the army would deny someone’s abilities, courage, patriotism, and willingness to serve because of ink that has been embedded in their skin. The Army has wisely decided to reverse some of its policies on tattoos after considerable outcry from the troops.

On April 2, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said the Army will update its policy on tattoos in the coming weeks, making it more accommodating to current social norms. His statements came during a press conference at which Odierno said the service regularly reviews and makes updates to Army Regulation 670-1, which dictates regulations on uniforms and appearance. Gen. Odierno said the revisions are “part of the regular process that we go through.”

According to the US Army webpage, soldiers will no longer be limited to a particular size or number of tattoos permitted on the arms or legs, Odierno said, provided those tattoos are not extremist, indecent, sexist or racist. The policy will, however, continue to prohibit tattoos above the T-shirt neckline, on the head, face, wrists and hands. There will be an exception allowing one ring tattoo on each hand.

The change comes after the previous Sergeant Major of the Army, Raymond Chandler, announced new stringent rules on tattoos that he said were largely due to the downsizing of U.S. forces.

That changed previous policy that only prohibited the wearing of ink that was deemed “extreme, indecent, insensitive, or racist” as well as the placement of any tattoo on the neck or face. Under Chandler, the regulations were changed however, to target arms and legs as well. A soldier could have no more than four tattoos showing below the elbows or knees. Any that did could not exceed the width and length of a soldier’s hand, and any bands could be no wider than two inches.

Essentially, soldiers were given free will to pick their three favorite words or logo because unless your name is Shaquille O’Neal and you have an 11-inch hand, you would not be able to cover much more. But new Sgt. Major Daniel A. Dailey, who replaced Chandler in January of this year, has taken a different stance, and in April Gen. Odierno indicated he is on board.

The rationale for tighter restrictions cited the downsizing of our armed forces as one of the contributing factors. It’s a reason that is understandable: If fewer people are needed but the same amount want to serve, there has to be a reason to make cuts. But why would army leadership let a physical difference with no bearing on soldiers’ abilities to lead or perform their duties as a soldier be a deciding criteria for eligibility to serve? If we need to become more selective in our troops than ever before, new recruits should be the smartest, most diverse and most fit in training the army has seen. If some of those recruits happen to have full sleeves, then the hell with it. I don’t think I am alone in saying I would rather the armed forces of our country be filled with inked-up men and women who are professional, highly trained, and skilled at what they do than clean-skinned soldiers who lack those same abilities.

History provides plenty of examples in which physical differences that took away from a “uniformed image” proved to be irrelevant to an individual’s contribution as a soldier. Black soldiers didn’t originally fit the standard. I’m sure they stood out like an iceberg in a desert the first time they fell in to formation with their Caucasian counterparts, and people actually believed them to be inferior.

The men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War, the Tuskegee Airman of WWII and every other African-American soldier who has served, however, proved that physical difference to be meaningless. Soldiers fight, lead, sweat and bleed the same regardless of being different in physical appearance. Females also certainly screwed up the army’s image of standardization the first time they stood next to a high n’ tight haircut. No matter how much hair gel is applied, a pulled back bun looks vastly different than a buzzed head. Even their uniforms have been made to look different.

Am I trying to equate the pain of centuries of racism and gender inequality to getting a tattoo? No. But it does reveal holes in the argument for needing a standardized image among soldiers.

Prospective recruits were not the only ones who felt the impact of the tightened standards. The first step in the implementation of the revised regulations was an extensive self-reporting of all tattoos to document any that do not meet compliance. In theory, any soldiers who found themselves in violation of the tattoo policies were to be grandfathered in. However, the army was rather liberal in their definition of “grandfathered in.” Their interpretation was along the lines of, “Yes, you can stay in. We just expect you to get the tattoo removed. Oh, and that will be out of your pocket, not ours.”

This is not a huge surprise. Regulations and policies change every time someone new is put in charge (case and point as the policies have now changed again back to much less stringent standards). It was probably going to be hard to explain to a superior why a large sum of money was spent paying for soldiers’ removal procedures if the policy was no longer in effect two years later.

There is absolutely something to be said for maintaining a neat, professional, and orderly image as a member of our armed forces. I understand the reason for more regulations being put in place with the downsizing of troops: It’s a case of supply and demand. The demand for new recruits is low and the supply is high, so the army has every right to be selective. I only find fault in what the army chose to be selective of. Increase the fitness standards, raise the bar for education, change something that will help improve the quality of the person in uniform. Tattoos don’t determine that. They have no bearing on a person’s competence.

Think back to that list of adjectives. Words like patriotic, courageous, and strong describe a person’s character, not their appearance. Men and woman who volunteer for our army understand the risks of their chosen profession and have carried out their duties with incredible skill and sacrifice for over 200 years. If they want to cover their skin in ink, I say let them.

Bailey Beltramo is a sophomore cadet who feels strongly that body art is not a way to judge a soldier’s character or fitness. He is a member of the Guidon editorial staff.

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