U.S. Military Bans Sleeve Tattoos on Enlisted Soldiers

If you’re a tattooed soldier and the sun is out, you better be sure only one gun’s out.

An article by Time Magazine makes a bold, but statistically damning assessment of the age group the armed forces most often pull on for military service. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, seven out of ten members of 17 to 24-year-olds looking to join the military wouldn’t be able to sign on due to “reasons related to health, [or] physical appearance; including tattoos and educational background,” according to the Pentagon.

Essentially, 71 percent of the 34 million or so making up the prime talent pool for the Army wouldn’t qualify for military service for a number of different factors. A bit over a quarter of them would miss the grade for reasons such as obesity or mental health issues. Another eight percent are counted out for popping ADHD or other similar prescription meds on the regular. Other bars from service include things like having a felony charge on your record, lacking a high school diploma or…

Having certain tattoos and ear gauges.

There are some blatant bans outlined in the military’s recently revised uniform policy. Anything above the T-shirt line–like facial tattoos or neck designs—are out, falling in line with the uniformity they strive for in criteria demanded in terms of hairstyles, beards, etc.  There can be special exceptions made, but whether or not that happens is up to the individual recruiter, who signs the waivers needed to join up. “We have not adopted a zero-defect mentality,” Defense Department spokesman Nathan Christensen told The Wall Street Journal. “We evaluate each applicant from a whole-person perspective.”

So obviously, this isn’t a complete death knell to anyone with tattoos willing to head off to fight for the stars and stripes. But still, in an era where the standards of enlistment are falling off and there are an increasing number of people in their prime age group getting inked, wouldn’t it be reasonable to allow a bit more leniency for the approximately 180,000 the Journal said successfully volunteer for the armed forces each year?

After all, tattoos are the most common cosmetic reason applicants to the military are turned away. In Arizona, around 500 people were recently turned away from serving their country because of their tattoos. This could be key, considering out of the 34 million individuals mentioned earlier, only about one percent actually want to enlist. In 2011, 100,000 individuals volunteered for the Army and the Army Reserve alone.

Restrictions are in place for more than four visible tattoos below the elbow or knee, more than one armband-style tattoo (limited to 2” across in size) and sleeves of any sort on the arms or legs—assuming they don’t cross that elbow/knee border according to the Army Times. But if they do, the Army said soldiers would be required to pay out of pocket for the removal of any tattoo that violates the policy according to a Stars and Stripes article dating from last September.

Bans on sexist or racist tattoos advocating philosophies degrading or demeaning to a person based on race, ethnicity, or national origin are in place as well. But another policy, an abstract ban on indecent tattoos, or what they consider “grossly offensive to modesty, decency, propriety or professionalism,” to us, could seem a tad subjective in this scenario.

Pew Research Center said that in 2010 nearly 40 percent of US adults between the ages of 18 and 29 had tattoos. 32 percent between that group and 40 years of age had at least one as well–numbers have been growing since. If you’re reading this, you probably know all too well that this isn’t exactly a passing trend we’re dealing with, and as it continues to gain mainstream acceptance across the country, concessions are probably going to have to be made at all levels of society.

This was the military’s attempt at accommodating an increasing number of service men and women choosing to get tattooed. However, with the regulations saying all new ink needs to be reported to a commanding officer and filed with their Army Military Human Resource Record, this policy isn’t exactly lenient or even avoidable by any standards, with some even going as far to sue the military for violating their First Amendment rights. Though all previous tattoos grandfathered in will be put on record to help determine the parameters of the policy’s enforcement, there’s still that potential human, subjective factor that could get people in trouble for their forms of personal expression.

Christensen did tell the Wall Street Journal that recruiting goals for the last few years have been met, which does mean preventing people with lavish tattoos isn’t hurting their numbers. Although, in 2007, a mere 79 percent of enlistees had high school diplomas, making for an 11 percent dip from six years earlier. Fitness standards were lowered in the years following 2001 as well.

This makes us think a little about the priorities of this uniform policy. Last time we checked, it’s not every day you see an active soldier with anything, much less a forearm, exposed at any given point. And, frankly, when the situation on the field hits fever pitch, does it really matter what the person defending our freedom looks like?

Sgt. Major of the Army Raymond Chandler was quoted in Stars & Stripes saying the Army wants soldiers to stand out because of their achievements, not because of the way they look.

So this is what leaves us at odds with this policy. If aesthetics are so unimportant in military life, why is it so difficult to look past a tattoo that, in most cases, isn’t even visible? A hero can come in all shapes, sizes and colors, of any religion and any ethnicity. So why are tattoos where we draw the line?

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