For Veterans Day last year, a new project was launched to get those who have served to open up about their military experience. The vehicle for doing so was unusual, but common among veterans: tattoos.
War Ink made a splash, with coverage by Buzzfeed, PBS, USA Today and other news organizations. It showed veterans discussing tattoos and the circumstances under which they got them, which can range from the celebration of a coveted assignment to the mourning of a fallen friend.
It is for all those reasons that ongoing discussions in both the Army and Marine Corps have grabbed attention among service members and veterans alike. Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said Wednesday that strict rules on tattoos in his service put in place last year will be rolled back. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, meanwhile, also said recently that his service is reviewing existing tattoo policies. They were last updated in 2010.
News about both services has garnered widespread praise. Some examples:
Nobody understands how happy I am that the Army changed its tattoo policy. Now I can get my whole sleeve done!
— George Best (@Col3world_) April 2, 2015
The Army has once again changed the tattoo policy! I can get full sleeves now
Never thought I'd say this, but I wish the marine corps would follow the army… Just reverse the tattoo policy already!
— Kevin Wiseman (@distantwiseman) April 2, 2015
I might end up getting sleeves if the Marine Corps revokes the tattoo policy.
— Derek Mulkey (@D_Mulkey) April 1, 2015
The Marine Corps policy bans body art that could bring embarrassment to the service. That includes anything with nudity, vulgarity, references to illegal drugs or extremist groups.
But the policy also prohibits half- and quarter-length “sleeves” that wrap around the arm and “bands” that wrap around a body part and are greater than two inches wide. It also limits prospective officers to no more than four tattoos that appear while wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
The Army policy, updated last year, went even farther in some ways. It restricted future enlisted soldiers and officers alike from having no more than four tattoos below the knee or elbow, and said those tattoos could be no larger than the soldier’s hand. Like the other services, tattoos on the face, neck, hands and anything considered extremist, sexist or racist also were prohibited.
Army officials said this week that the plan has been revised to allow soldiers to have tattoos on their arms and legs as long as they aren’t visible in the long-sleeve camouflage service uniform. Sgt. Maj. Dan Dailey, the top enlisted soldier in the Army, said it was an issue of morale.
“I don’t want this to be the deciding factor for a good soldier to get out,” he told Army Times.
The top enlisted Marine, Sgt. Maj. Ronald L. Green, was asked recently by Dunford to discuss the issue with other enlisted Marine leaders during a meeting this week, said Gunnery Sgt. Chanin Nuntavong, a spokesman for Green. Nuntavong said he did not know when the issue will come up with Dunford, who has final say on policy changes as the Marine Corps commandant.
The Army loosening its tattoo restrictions should help in at least one regard beyond morale: recruiting. After the tougher new guidelines were adopted last year, the service acknowledged turning away prospective soldiers as a result. One recruiter suggested as much online:
— SSG Acker (@SSG_Acker) March 31, 2015
Jason Deitch, a former Army sergeant and co-creator of War Ink, said the service easing tattoo guidelines also could help those who have served in combat because many of them use tattoos as a mode of expression. He works in a rehabilitative neuroscience program that is run jointly by the University of California, Berkeley, and Department of Veterans Affairs centers in California.
“Military culture, warfighter culture, is not an emotive culture by any means,” Deitch said. “There’s no place for a dialogue for the emotions of loss or fear or [traumatic brain injury] or post traumatic stress disorder, and tattoos present a way for active-duty soldiers to have a journal, a way to express these things. There’s a real good chance that the repealing of this and the beginning of this dialogue about what tattoos say could do some real good for active-duty guys.”