Tattoos Are Dishonorably Discharged


In an about-face, the U.S. Army is banning tattoos on the forearm, the lower leg and above the neckline. It's also nixing all tats deemed racist, sexist, or extremist.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh approved the change to grooming regulations just days after soldiers stationed in Germany were told to avoid unauthorized tattoo dealers due to a risk of infection from diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

Once implemented, the new regulation would require soldiers to declare tattoos to their unit commanders, "self-identifying" every tribal armband, insignia, bald eagle and depiction of the Virgin Mary to ensure compliance with the new policy.

The new regulation prohibits "extremist" tattoos associated with philosophies or organizations that espouse hatred or intolerance based on race, ethnicity, or gender, and also those advocating violence or other illegal means of depriving individual rights under the U.S. Constitution or federal or state law. Also prohibited are "indecent" markings deemed grossly offensive.

There may be a grandfather clause for inoffensive tattoos on parts of the body that are visible, but soldiers will be required to remove all offensive tattoos at their own expense.

The change in grooming rules might strike many soldiers as odd, given the Army's recent celebration of the body art form – which gave new meaning to the term highly decorated soldier. Between offensive surges in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army's public affairs team went so far as to declare an end to the taboo on the tattoo, an art form that it said "tells soldiers' tales." Indeed, many deploying soldiers followed a tradition dating to the Civil War and popularized during World War II, in which a deployment often began with those venturing to faraway combat zones acquiring a religious or spiritual insignia. As an Army website posting in 2009 observed, "Today, it seems, you couldn't throw a rock into an Army formation without hitting a soldier with at least one tattoo."

The popularity of body ink among soldiers and other service members also reflects a cultural evolution in America. More than one in three millennials, ages 18 to 25, and nearly one in four members of Generation X, ages 30 to 45, sport tattoos. Americans of all ages spend $1.65 billion per year on the industry. In total, more than 45 million Americans, from adolescent to elder, report having one or more tattoos, including the seemingly ubiquitous male tribal arm band and the still-popular female "tramp stamp." Tattoos are now so common that the unadorned human form can be seen as the new mark of the rebel.

Sara J. Bourgeois, a retired soldier whose husband, Alex, separated last year from the U.S. Marine Corps after serving in Afghanistan, is a 36-year-old mother and student living in Vermont. She and her husband both have multiple tattoos. "I have no problem with the proposed ban, as long as soldiers who already have ink in those designated areas are grandfathered in and may remain in service – without having anything nonoffensive removed," Bourgeois says. "If this [regulation] came about in 2008, I would not have been able to enlist and serve."

She adds that the service should move quickly to clarify misconceptions among members of the Army community regarding a possible grandfather clause for some tattoos and the self-paid removal of others. "I feel that the Army will potentially lose out on great recruits as a result," she says.