A tattoo of a nautical star on the inside of Matthew Rieger's right forearm threatened Rieger's service with the Air Force. Rieger, left, is a 23-year-old Seattle resident who hopes to enter officer school in June. (Courtesy of Matthew Rieger)
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The Air Force Recruiting Service rescinded a short-lived tattoo policy Thursday, after turning away 26 recruits from basic training.
A message sent Nov. 25 to recruiting personnel made several alterations to Recruiting Service procedure, but the one causing trouble was a ban on tattoos on a recruit's right "saluting arm."
Official Air Force policy bans only tattoos that are obscene or do not fit a "military image," that cover more than one-fourth of a body part, or are above the collarbone. The Recruiting Service policy would have turned away recruits who complied fully with Air Force regulations.
The tougher tattoo rule for recruits, approved by Recruiting Service commander Brig. Gen. A.J. Stewart, followed an investigation of trainees that found more than 80 who didn't comply with the Air Force tattoo policy, said spokeswoman Christa D'Andrea.
"The issue of not having tattoos on the right arm is one of military image," D'Andrea said. "If [recruits] enter BMT with no tattoos on their right arm, they ensure they're starting their career with an understanding of what military image means."
Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Richelle Dowdell said commanders are allowed to implement policies more stringent than the official Air Force policy.
Nobody was affected by the new tattoo policy until Tuesday. New recruits are shipped every Tuesday to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and recruits around the country — out of the 500 to 600 who ship out per week — who expected to start training that day were turned away, D'Andrea said. As news reports began to surface of the recruits' stories, the Recruiting Service quickly instituted a 30-day "grace period" for recruits who had already been approved, and moved to reschedule ship dates.
Kayla Bresnan of western Pennsylvania was sworn in for the Air Force's delayed entry program in April. But she was told Tuesday that she couldn't go to Lackland because of a tattoo of a theatrical mask on her right forearm. Before the Air Force rescinded the tattoo rule, Bresnan learned she would be grandfathered in under the old policy. She expects to leave for basic training on Dec. 15.
Air Force recruits around the country were dismayed by the policy change.
Matthew Rieger, a 23-year-old Seattle resident who was hoping to enter officer school in June, has a tattoo of a nautical star on the inside of his right forearm. He called his recruiter Tuesday and heard a deep sigh on the other end of the phone when he asked about the ink's implications.
"He said he lost a lot of guys, and there's a lot of pushback," Rieger said. He called the Recruiting Service's policy "inconsistent and annoying."
An Air Force Reserve recruiter, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his career, told Air Force Times the change has had "a big effect" and he wished recruiters had at least been given more advance notice.
"We're having to go through all the people we've already put into the [Delayed Entry] program," the recruiter said. "It sucks … and it's kind of heartbreaking for some of these kids too."
Raymond Dawicki, 21, of Meriden, Conn., has his first name tattooed on the inside of his right arm, from elbow to wrist. He signed up for the Air Force two months ago, passed the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and was ready to go in for processing the week after the policy change was announced.
"I talked to my recruiter last Saturday and he said I was disqualified," Dawicki said Wednesday. "When he told me I was kind of shocked at first. I didn't really know what to say."
Dawicki was considering looking at the other services, but said, "I don't want to go into another branch, I want to go into the Air Force."
Removing the tattoo would be too expensive, he said. "I'm just hoping they change [the policy]," Dawicki said. "I don't understand it really at all."
After the outcry from recruits and recruiters, Air Force officials held an emergency meeting Wednesday night at the Pentagon to review the situation. On Thursday, officials announced that the Nov. 25 message had been rescinded and that "several agencies will conduct a review of the dress and personnel appearance [regulations] to standardize implementation of policy."
D'Andrea said the decision "came from the Air Force level" but declined to elaborate on who else attended Wednesday's meeting.
There should be no further impact on Air Force recruits, she said. Of the 26 who were turned away from basic training Tuesday, 20 had already been rebooked for shipping, but three had decided that the Air Force wasn't for them after all.
Brig. Gen. A.J. Stewart, the service's recruiting service commander, issued the following statement to Air Force Times:
"As a result of several new Airmen arriving at Basic Military Training with inappropriate tattoos and subsequently being discharged, we issued expanded guidance to recruiters in order to ensure all Airmen are in full compliance with the Air Force tattoo policy before they arrive at BMT. Policies are in place as a guiding rule for commanders and sometimes there can be different interpretations. The guidance released by AFRS was a measure to remove some of the subjectivity about tattoos out of the process. Regrettably, there were members of our Delayed Entry Program caught in the middle of the implementation of this expanded guidance for reviewing tattoos. We've worked the issue and those recruits who want to continue serving our great Air Force have been rescheduled for a new ship date to Basic Military Training. Additionally, all members of the Delayed Enlistment Program who have been previously reviewed will proceed to BMT as planned. At this time, Recruiting Service is revising guidance recently sent to the field to ensure it more closely aligns with the published Air Force tattoo policy."