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A Tattoo Too Far
by James Dunnigan
August 14, 2014

The U.S. Army has again increased the restrictions on potential recruits with tattoos. As of early 2014 recruits will not be considered if there are any tattoos on the head, face, neck, wrists, hands and fingers. Soldiers are allowed a maximum of four visible tattoos below the elbow or knee and there are size restrictions on those. This is just the latest policy shift regarding what makes a suitable recruit. Until 2006, the Department of Defense paid for laser tattoo removal treatments. Since then, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended and more recruits came forward potential recruits have had to pay for these laser treatments themselves, as do those potential recruits who have more tats than the recruiting rules allow. Tattoo removal costs from a few hundred dollars for a small one (no larger than a business card) to thousands for larger multicolor ones. For people with a lot of ink on them, removal is not only expensive but takes several months.

It's unclear why the brass at the Pentagon are so hung up on tattoos. Tattoos have long been a favorite form of self-expression among military personnel. But since the United States eliminated conscription in the early 1970s the military has been less tolerant of recruits with lots of tats, especially visible ones. The current crackdown has a lot of do with a lot more people trying to get into the military these days. The military has to find ways to decide who to accept, and who to reject. Folks with an abundance of tattoos are not welcome. The four services (army, navy, air force and marines) all have different rules for tats and those that are having more trouble making their numbers can ease their tattoo rules and get some people the other services turned away just because of the body art.

The American military services believe in tradition, but they are increasingly recruiting troops from a population that is less interested in that sort of thing. In fact, the last few generations have adopted lifestyle customs that are quite at odds with what is thought of as a "military bearing" (how troops look and move). So all the services are increasingly adding rules stipulating how the troops should behave. Tattoos (where they are), piercings (very few), cell phones (how they are carried) and umbrellas (when they are allowed) have all been covered.

Not long ago, led by the marines, these rules reached the issue of jewelry, especially for women. Some of these new rules made official what had long been unofficial custom. Just to make sure the young troops got the message. This is all to cope with the growing popularity of wearing more jewelry, especially with the women. All the services have men and women in the ranks, and by 2010 the marines mandated that you may only have one ring per hand. But the custom of wearing gold or platinum caps on teeth was also out, although waivers were available for those who had permanent caps implanted before October, 2007. Also forbidden was chest hair protruding from T-shirts. This one is a bit odd, since the U.S. Air Force has encouraged that sort of thing (but did not make it mandatory.)

There are a lot of new rules about how you cannot cut your hair. No sideburns that end in a point (popular among civilians for over a decade) and exotic cuts for men or women. That meant no Mohawk cuts (although this was popular among combat troops during World War II). Also outlawed were spiky hair, dreadlocks or anything that offends your gunny (Gunnery Sergeant, usually a platoon sergeant). The new rules made it official that male marines could shave their heads, but female marines must have at least quarter inch (7mm) length hair. If the female marines have hair that extends below the collar, they must be able to put it up in a bun while on duty. The women did catch one break, in that patterned fingernails (French manicures) were officially allowed.

All marines were prohibited from putting their hands in the pockets (except to fetch something) while on base. If you are in combat and its cold, you could stick your hands in your pockets to keep your trigger finger limber. You were also forbidden from walking and drinking at the same time, something which has become common as more people carry a container of water around with them all the time. Some of these items like gold teeth will now keep you from enlisting at all. At the same time there were rules that prohibited anyone with certain types of tattoos from joining. This rule did not ban all tattoos, just those that would be visible while in their PT (Physical Training) uniforms (gym shorts and T-shirt). Marine recruiters complained that the rules kept changing and that it was a hassle to keep current. Most recruiters would prefer it if they were just evaluated on how well those they recruited did during their first year in uniform and forget about a lot of the “appearance” rules, especially those regarding tats. That suggestion had some supporters at the top but was eventually turned down.

 


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