Army is seeking to clean up the ink
San Antonio Express-News
The American military rite of passage of getting inked with a tattoo, a tradition dating to the Civil War and sailors of the 1800s, is being curbed by the Army.
Today, young service members and recruits carry on that tradition, flooding tattoo shops on weekends. Steve Owen, owner of Adrenaline Tattoos and Body Piercing, on Austin Highway, near Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, said he used to see more of them right after they'd been paid on the 1st or 15th of the month.
"They didn't have any bills, and they'd been locked down on post," Owen said. "It really, really kept us going."
A uniform policy now under final review by the Army is getting some blowback from soldiers and veterans. New rules prohibiting tattoos below the elbows or knees or above the neckline may soon take effect, putting the Army more in line with other military branches.
"I think it's crazy. There's no need for it," said Bobby Henline, a medically retired Army sergeant who has an amputated arm, disfigured face and burns covering 38 percent of his body from a bomb blast in Iraq.
Henline, who gives motivational talks and has gained national attention as a standup comic, has a tattoo of a flaming skull on his right arm -- the "good arm," he said -- and "Truly Blessed" inked across his chest. He said he believes the Army is inhibiting a means for soldier to show their pride.
"Let soldiers do their job," said Henline of San Antonio. "This should not be an issue."
Dominic Fernandez, who served in the Marine Corps for 14 years and was badly wounded in Afghanistan in 2010, said the change could cut off military service as a career option for some prospective recruits, and may affect promotion for some soldiers.
Fernandez, a San Antonian who had most of his right leg amputated after a bomb blast and recently was medically retired, said the Marines adopted similar restrictions in 2007.
"I just felt bad for the career Marines," he said. "You may get a waiver for an existing tattoo to keep from getting kicked out. But as you seek higher rank and go up against clean-cut-image dudes, who do you think will get the promotion?"
When Owen opened his shop in 1997, and for years after, active duty military made up at least 60 percent of the clientele. Now, the share is less than 10 percent, Owen said. His studio does not pay cab fares for military troops, like some other shops do, he said.
The top-selling items among soldiers, he said, are a combat medic insignia, featuring two snakes wrapped around a winged staff, and images of an M-16 rifle with boots and a helmet, in memory of fallen comrades.
"We see more Navy than Army personnel now," as more Navy and Air Force personnel have integrated into operations at Fort Sam, Owen said.
Retired Air Force Col. Dennis LeVan, a former Junior ROTC instructor at Jay High School near JBSA-Lackland, said he used to warn his students about the "permanency of tattoos."
Now that the war in Iraq is over and operations in Afghanistan are winding down, the Army can adopt stronger restrictions without worrying much about recruiting and retention, he said.
"Tattoos used to be shunned, but they became so prevalent in society that I think the military found itself in a difficult position," LeVan said. "It's getting back to what's considered a professional image."
To young soldiers, tattoos can be a source of pride, or a link to friends who count on one another for survival. Some, like a skull, a screaming eagle or military insignia, feed a sense of bravado that troops carry into combat.
But Army officials, citing examples of troops with visible images that are indecent, profane, sexist or racist, have said for about a year that the service would crack down on tattoos. Some may be considered offensive in foreign lands, or could affect post-military employment. While the San Antonio Police Department does not restrict visible tattoos, some law enforcement agencies prohibit them.
"A neat and well-groomed appearance is fundamental to the Army profession and contributes to building the pride and esprit essential for an effective military force," the Army said in a statement released through a public affairs official in Washington.
Army officials did not confirm media reports that tattoos visible while wearing physical training shorts and a T-shirt would be banned unless grandfathered, meaning they existed before the new rule took effect. Some reports have said the new uniform policy will also address grooming, hairstyle and body piercings.
Commanders and recruiters are conducting inspections and screening recruits for potential violations of the current policy, which prohibits tattoos on the head or face, according to the Army. Owen said soldiers are getting clearance from their sergeants before getting a tattoo.
"They have to get it pre-approved," he said.
Marine Corps restrictions prohibit visible sleeve tattoos that cover a large portion of an arm or leg, and limit the band width of tattoos that encircle a limb. Although specifications regarding dimensions can be complex and technical, there's no leeway when it comes to racy tattoos, said Fernandez, a former Marine recruiter.
"If it says Brown Pride or Black Panther, that won't cut it," he said.