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Tattoo policy changes are coming soon

Aug. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The Army is close to announcing changes to its tattoo policy as it pertains to enlisted soldiers hoping to go officer or make warrant.
The Army is close to announcing changes to its tattoo policy as it pertains to enlisted soldiers hoping to go officer or make warrant. (Staff Sgt. Xaime Hernandez/Army)
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Sgt. Lindsay Urena wants to go officer but has run afoul of the tattoo rules for the size of her forearm tattoo that depicts Bumblebee from the Transformers films. (Courtesy of Lindsay Urena)
Sgt. Lindsey Urena had a painful experience trying to remove a lizard tattoo on her hand in order to meet Army regs. (Courtesy of Lindsey Urena)
The top photo shows Sgt. Angela Westover's hand and neck tattoos before laser removal. The bottom photos show the same tattoos after several treatments. (Courtesy of Angela Westover)

Tattooed soldiers seeking to trade in their sergeant’s stripes for a lieutenant’s bar may soon see some relief from one of the Army’s most controversial regulations.

The Army is very close to announcing changes to the policy, that will likely relax the rules for soldiers looking to earn a commission or make warrant.

Army spokesman Paul Prince confirmed a review had taken place and that changes were imminent.

“Specifics about these changes will be published in the forthcoming version of [Army Regulation] 670-1,” Prince said.

Army officials are remaining tight-lipped about specific rule changes until the revisions can be published. But it’s likely to be good news for soldiers, many of whom have lambasted the service for not grandfathering enlisted soldiers who want to go officer.

The current AR 670-1, published March 31, includes the following rules:

■ No tattoos on the head, face, neck and hands.

■ No extremist, indecent, sexist or racist ink.

■ No more than four visible tattoos below the elbows and knees. In addition, those tattoos must be smaller than the size of the wearer’s hand.

■ Visible band tattoos cannot be more than two inches wide,

■ Finally, sleeve tattoos are not allowed.

But here was the kicker: while most soldiers were going to be grandfathered, the regulation states that enlisted soldiers with illegal ink cannot request commissioning without a waiver.

The clause angered many soldiers, who took to social media to vent their frustration.

Many felt insulted that they were deemed ineligible to be commissioned because of their appearance, especially if their ink honored their fellow soldiers killed in combat. Others feared the Army would lose strong, combat-tested leaders because of this rule.

One soldier even sued the Army, which said it tightened its tattoo policies in order to maintain a professional look across the force.

Staff Sgt. Adam Thorogood, of the Kentucky National Guard, sued July 10 in federal court, seeking to have the new tattoo rules declared unconstitutional. Thorogood, who has 11 tattoos, hopes to become an aviation warrant officer.

Soldiers were further angered when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in response to a query from the Congressional Black Caucus, directed the services to review their hairstyle policies after an online controversy sparked when some black soldiers criticized the Army’s updated regulation as racially biased.

The Army this month agreed to make changes to its hairstyle regulation as a result of the review. This incensed the tattoo crowd further, since the Army appeared willing to adjust hair rules but not the tattoo rules.

Details on those changes, along with the expected changes to the tattoo policy, had not been published as of Thursday evening. Officials expected the new AR 670-1 will be published soon, possibly within days.

Amid the backlash from its new, tighter tattoo policy, the Army said soldiers could request an exception to the policy.

Waiver process

As of July, the Army has granted “approximately 59 exceptions to policy for tattoos” for enlisted soldiers working to become officers or warrant officers, Prince said.

Prince declined to provide specifics on what types of tattoos were given the OK, but he did say some soldiers who received a waiver had visible tattoos that were bigger than their hand, some had more than four visible tattoos below their elbows or knees, and some even had tattoos on their neck or hands.

Despite the waiver process apparently working for some soldiers, there remains confusion across parts of the force.

Army Reserve Sgt. Lindsay Urena, a medic, just earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology with the sole purpose of seeking a commission and training to become a physician assistant.

Urena had a tattoo of a lizard removed from her right hand – a procedure she said was incredibly painful because the dermatologist she saw tried to remove the tattoo in one sitting. Almost three months later, her hand is still healing.

Now she’s worried because she has a large tattoo of Bumblebee from the “Transformers” on her left forearm.

Ironically, she got it earlier this year as a cover-up for two small, quarter-sized tattoos, Urena said.

“Had I known, I would have never gotten it so big,” she said.

Her commander wrote a memorandum requesting a waiver on her behalf, Urena said, but the unit is now mobilized, and she doesn’t know where her application stands.

Urena said she also visited three recruiters around Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and a retention noncommissioned officer, and “all of them said you cannot have any tattoos whatsoever,” she said.

“At this point, if they won’t waive it, then I’m just going to stay enlisted,” said Urena, whose husband is an active-duty soldier at Fort Bragg.

The whole process has been painful and frustrating, she said.

“I am a noncommissioned officer,” Urena said. “I am professional in every aspect of my military career. How is having a tattoo a symbol of being unprofessional? As a medic, does my tattoo prevent me from saving a life, giving medical care of helping my fellow soldiers? Not in the least, so why am I being punished for it?”

Sgt. Angela Westover faces a similar situation as Urena.

Westover, also an Army Reserve medic, received a waiver in 2008 for tattoos on her neck and hand. She just finished nursing school and wants to become an officer.

In an e-mail to Army Times, Westover said she tried an at-home, self-dermabrasion system to remove the tattoos on her neck and hand, but it didn’t work, so she opted for laser removal.

“So far, I have paid hundreds of dollars to subject myself to this misery,” she said. “My tattoo is nearly gone, but now the policy has changed. I have full forearm sleeves that are not within the new standard. The whole process has been extremely frustrating, but I am still holding on to hope that maybe something good can still happen for me.”

Staff Sgt. Alan Lalonde, who has half-sleeve tattoos on his arms, said in an e-mail to Army Times he wished his service would get with the times.

“In my case, I have half-sleeves on the lower part of my arms,” he said. “I have been in the Army for 11 years and I am promotable, but I do not qualify to be an officer and am not grandfathered in even though I have a 127 [General Technical] score and 130 [Skilled Technical] score.”

The qualifying minimum GT score for any officer-producing program is 110.

“I wish they would see the generation in which we currently live and adjust slightly to take care of the good ones,” Lalonde said.

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