The U.S. Military continues to have problems with tattoos. This time it has to do with political correctness, or simply politics depending on how you want to look at it. The latest incident has to do with an 18 year old who was joining the marines. All was going well until he was asked about tattoos and he said he had one on his upper body that consisted of a confederate flag with “southern pride” spelled out beneath it. The recruiter said that the confederate flag is no longer acceptable for otherwise permitted (because of size and location) tattoos. Because of that he could not join the marines until he had it removed. That’s a costly process but for him was the price of getting into the marines.
The army has been having similar problems and has changed their policies several times since the 1990s. The latest change was in April 2015 when soldiers were no longer limited to how many (and how large) the tattoos they have on arms and legs. There are still restrictions on face, neck and hand tattoos. The latest round of restrictions were imposed in early 2014 and prohibited any tattoos on the head, face, neck, wrists, hands and fingers. Soldiers were allowed a maximum of four visible tattoos below the elbow or knee and there are size restrictions on those. Now one tattoo on a finger is allowed and no restrictions on the arms or legs.
The marines are in the process of updating their tattoo policy again and this is just the latest policy shift regarding what makes a suitable recruit when tattoos are involved. Until 2006, the Department of Defense paid for laser tattoo removal treatments. Since then, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended and fewer new recruits were needed, the military no longer paid for tattoo removal. Troops or those attempting to join have to pay for these laser treatments themselves. 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 was long unclear why the brass at the Pentagon were so hung up on tattoos. Whatever the case the pro-tattoo generals seem to have finally had their way, up to a point. The reason may be that 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 three decades to tattoo restrictions had a lot of do with a big increase in the number of people trying to get into the military, especially after 2001. The military had to find ways to decide who to accept, and who to reject. Folks with an abundance of tattoos were not welcome, even if the recruiter thought otherwise. The four services (army, navy, air force and marines) all have different rules for tats and those that are having more trouble making their recruiting 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 and what they mean), piercings (very few), cell phones (how they are carried) and umbrellas (when they are allowed) have all been covered.
Eventually, led by the marines, these rules reached the issue of jewelry, especially for women. Some of the 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 were 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 more new 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. Despite all that even the marines eventually had to loosen up and get with the changing times.