SAN ANTONIO — Shondrea Ponds-Pereyra has climbed the ladder of the Army's enlisted ranks over a 19-year career, making it to first sergeant. But she'll never be an officer.
A tattoo on her left forearm — not anything in a service record that includes one tour of Afghanistan — bars her from advancing that far under new Army rules.
The restriction is part of Army Regulation 670-1 on tattoos and grooming that critics say are racist because they prohibit hairstyles often worn by African-American women, including dreadlocks.
For Ponds-Pereyra, an African-American, the flap is more about how soldiers see themselves and the world — and hard realities of life in the Army — than racism.
“I think with this culture and a younger culture we use ourselves to express ourselves and our individualism, and I think that's a lot of the issues with 670-1 that people are having,” she said. “But it's all a part of being a part of the organization that we call the United States Army.”
The controversy exploded after an African-American soldier in Georgia launched a White House petition opposing the new regulations, blasting them as racist. A group of women in the Congressional Black Caucus wrote Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, asking him to reconsider the regulation.
They said the use of such words as “unkempt” and “matted” in the regulation “were offensive and biased” because the language referred to traditional hairstyles favored by African-American women.
That reference is made in a section called “female twists and dreadlocks.” The regulation bans “any unkempt or matted braids or cornrows” — language that frosted 16 Black Caucus members who signed the letter.
Hagel then ordered a review of the regulations, which took effect two months ago.
Years in the making, the regulations cover everything from the size of sideburns and moustaches to the length of fingernails. The Army said its intent is to ensure “that the culture of the Army reflects the highest level of professionalism.”
Soldiers cannot wear tattoos on their head, face, eyelids, neck, hands, wrists, fingers and calves. Sideburns, mustaches, dreadlocks, big hair buns, multiple braids, headbands and twists are out. GIs never were allowed to have eyelid tattoos, but were able to wear body art on necks, calves, forearms, hands and fingers.
The rules grandfather tattoos, allowing troops wearing them to continue serving. Still, the bottom line is that neat and clean is in, and if there is dissension in the ranks, there is support as well.
“I think the rules are great,” said Spc. Brittany Shorter, 28, of Miami, Fla., a combat medic in training who thinks the Army shouldn't have changed its tattoo rules.
“If it really bothers a person that much about the tattoos and the hair, do your contract and get out,” said another medic in training, Pfc. Matthew Soden, 23, of Binghamton, N.Y. “Obviously, if it's that big an issue, you don't need to be in the Army anymore. You can find another profession.”
Commanders at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston were given an order about two months ago to photograph tattoos worn by their soldiers. It isn't clear how many of the 32nd Medical Brigade's 4,777 soldiers, including medic trainees, have tattoos, or how many soldiers in the Army do.
But roughly one-third of 299 soldiers in Ponds-Pereyra's company did, with some wearing tattoos on their necks and forearms, all prohibited areas in the new rules.
“The tattoos have a story. While we were in there taking the pictures and I was seeing all of the tattoos of my soldiers and I was asking them questions about their tattoos, everybody had a story,” Ponds-Pereyra said, adding that some regretted their body art.
“But then there were a lot of tattoos that meant a lot to them. It was family-type tattoos, it was people that they had lost or something that was very, very significant to them and I think it was a way of expression. You kind of turned your body into a canvas.”
The Army requires that existing tattoos be documented to ensure soldiers are not later discharged for violating the rules, said Phil Reidinger, a spokesman for the Army Medical Department Center & School.
Despite the controversy, the Army long has had a conservative culture. Facial hair is but one example. It isn't hard to find troops wearing out-of-regulation mustaches in war zones, but many shave them off back in the more formal world of garrison, where they may draw unwanted attention even if they are within the regulations.
“All soldiers in the rank of staff sergeant and above have Department of the Army photos that are in their records, and if there was any male who had a photo with a mustache, there is no doubt in my mind he wouldn't get promoted,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jawn Oilar, the 232nd Medical Battalion's top NCO.
Army Times recently reported that a staff sergeant with a forearm tattoo filed a $100 million lawsuit against the Defense Department because the new rules prohibit him from becoming a warrant officer.
But Ponds-Pereyra, first sergeant for the 232nd Medical Battalion's F Company, said the tattoo ban is no big deal for her because she doesn't plan to be an officer. She also thinks the rules give her options for her hair.
“My hair is natural, but I have to keep it short in order to confirm with 670-1. If I was to grow it out, I could not wear a big huge Afro,” Ponds-Pereyra explained.
“Well, that might be something that I want to do, but that's not something I can do within 670-1,” she added. “Is that necessarily racist? No. But does it mean I have to go out and get a relaxer in my hair? No, because it still authorizes me to wear braids, which are within 670-1.”
Anther GI with a tattoo, Master Sgt. Antwone Jones, isn't complaining, either. The Army, after all, has a lot of rules.
“Soldiers in the military, we defend democracy, we don't practice it all the time. And sometimes rules and regulations are not going to be viewed by everyone else as just regulations,” said Jones, a combat medic with 27 months in Iraq.
“Sometimes that happens, but at the end of the day in my heart I believe that the secretary of the Army and the sergeant major of the Army do have the image of the Army in their best interests, and sometimes we have to do what we have to do to protect our image.”