Beards don’t belong in the military, senior enlisted adviser says at Air Force symposium
Stars and Stripes March 9, 2023
Airmen and other service members clamoring for the right to grow a beard had their hopes crushed by the military’s top enlisted adviser, who called the issue a waste of time during a recent video.
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ramon “CZ” Colon-Lopez, the senior enlisted adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced his disapproval of nonuniformity while addressing an airman’s question alongside Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass and Chief Master Sgt. of the Space Force Roger Towberman on Wednesday at the Air and Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium.
“The question is do we really need to be discussing fashion when we're preparing, after 20 years of war, to best an opponent that can potentially have the best of us?” Colon-Lopez said during the Facebook broadcast. “Is the beard relevant? Is there a need for a beard other than personal comfort to not shave?”
He continued to double down on the notion of beards as nothing more than an expression of personal style.
“If you want to look cute with your skinny jeans and your beard, by all means do it someplace else,” Colon-Lopez said. “But quit wasting our time on something that doesn’t have anything to do with kicking the enemy’s ass.”
Colon-Lopez’s full-throated beard rejection comes as the services have relaxed some rules amid a recruiting slump. For example, the Air Force last week began allowing hand and some neck tattoos up to an inch long.
Colon-Lopez added that he was against religious waivers exempting service members from shaving mandates because of the potential impact on unit discipline. That stance drew criticism from online commenters Wednesday and Thursday.
A self-described Air Force chaplain who took to Reddit on Wednesday called Colon-Lopez’s comments "despicable" and expressed concern about the leadership's attitude toward the issue.
“I’m speechless. Utterly speechless. … You have been serving for nearly 30 years and you don’t even acknowledge the importance of religious accommodations?” the commenter wrote. ”Just because we are serving in the military, does not mean our rights are gone … we fight to protect and guard those rights.”
Other commenters shared images of Civil War generals such as George Meade, Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman, all of whom sported full beards while leading troops.
Colon-Lopez, a pararescueman, acknowledged that he wore a beard in Afghanistan because of a “combat need to blend in” during special operations missions. But he said that the need went away when service members stopped blending in by wearing body armor and U.S. flag patches.
While none of the senior enlisted leaders have the final say on facial hair regulations, their input on standards carries considerable weight in the Pentagon.
Bass and Towberman were more diplomatic in their responses, which focused on the accommodations the Air Force and the Space Force implemented previously.
Bass said the service has made it easier for airmen to get a shaving exemption based on medical need or religious reasons.
“But you know, we are also balancing that need versus the want,” she said. “We have to balance that delicately.”
Towberman likened beard waivers to accommodations for eyeglasses.
“If at any point (beards become a) societal norm, then I guess we look at it differently,” he said. “But that point hasn’t come yet.”
Last summer, a leaked Space Force memo showed that Towberman’s service was considering a survey of how facial hair affected readiness for male service members in uniform during its own pilot program. The program was not adopted.
The Navy and Marine Corps likewise launched a study into how facial hair affects gas mask functionality after four petty officers sued the Navy over its denial of permanent medical and religious shaving waivers.
In 2020, the Air Force followed the lead of the Army, which in 2017 became the first service to allow Muslim and Sikh soldiers to wear head coverings and beards in line with their religious beliefs.