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A command photo of Master Sgt. Darhem Parker, as posted on his TikTok account. Parker says he lost his first sergeant position after counseling related to his social media use and grooming standards.

A command photo of Master Sgt. Darhem Parker, as posted on his TikTok account. Parker says he lost his first sergeant position after counseling related to his social media use and grooming standards. (Darhem Parker)

An Army master sergeant who says he lost a leadership role due partly to his beard and haircut has ignited online debate over both the impact of shaving waivers on careers and the extent to which service members can express themselves on social media.

Master Sgt. Darhem Parker, who has more than 24,000 followers and 550,000 likes associated with his TikTok account, celebrated his elevation to first sergeant as part of the Hawaii-based Alpha Company, 29th Brigade Engineer Battalion in an April 30 video post.

“Somebody in real life is going to see that picture on their wall and be pissed (expletive) off,” Parker says as he shows off his command picture while pointing out his haircut and his beard.

Parker wasn’t wrong about that.

He was counseled by his battalion sergeant major on May 2 for inappropriate online conduct, he said during a video interview Tuesday.

Parker said he mostly agreed with the counseling regarding his video.

“When I look back on it, I cringe when I say I agree, but I ain’t always right,” Parker said Tuesday. “I could have toned down the passion or the ‘I told you so’ attitude.”

What Parker didn’t expect was the mention of his appearance in the counseling statement, along with the instructions to retake his command photo after correcting his haircut.

During the interview Tuesday, Parker said he had worked alongside the 29th BEB command team since early April to transition into the first sergeant job.

The battalion leadership never took issue with his appearance, he said.

“I want to note this important part: (The battalion sergeant major) said he got a call from somebody higher up that wasn’t in the chain of command,” Parker said Tuesday. “From whoever talked to him, his whole perception of me changed.”

Parker, whose uniform includes Ranger, airborne and engineering “sapper” tabs, retained some support locally.

A day after the counseling, Parker spoke with the 25th Infantry Division’s Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Haynie about the April 30 video.

According to Parker, Haynie said he saw nothing wrong with the video, adding that Parker’s appearance was within grooming standards for soldiers with medical shaving waivers.

In a TikTok post on May 5, Parker said that Haynie commended him for being an advocate for soldiers on a “shaving profile,” a designation that comes with qualifying skin conditions.

Parker thought the situation had been resolved, until two days later, when he was counseled by his battalion commander and informed that he wouldn’t become a first sergeant.

“Well, they got me for taunting, and truth be told, I was,” Parker said in a May 8 TikTok video. “I was taunting everybody who ever told me I would never be a first sergeant with a shaving profile.”

The Army identifies taunting as a form of bullying under the service’s harassment prevention program.

On Tuesday, Parker declined to identify his battalion leadership by name or to add details on the May 7 counseling, but he said it was professional, clear and to the point.

The 25th Infantry Division did not respond to Stars and Stripes queries since Saturday regarding why Parker was removed from his assignment, among other questions.

Parker’s posts include occasional profanity and criticism of his workplace environment.

But the Defense Department social media policy, which was introduced in 2022 and updated last year, doesn’t specifically address those practices. It does require DOD personnel to uphold “applicable standards of professionalism” and ethical conduct.

Although he says he mostly agrees with the assessment of his online conduct, Parker says he’s still confused about the comments related to his appearance or why the situation resulted in loss of the leadership position. It boils down to perception, he said.

“I’m starting to pick up on something (while) watching the internet go crazy. If you don’t see a problem with my beard, you just look at the video and say ‘yeah, he made it,’ ” Parker said Tuesday. “If you don’t like my beard, then you see it as me taking a shot at you.”

Last week, the Army W.T.F! Moments Facebook site, which has 1.6 million followers, added Parker’s video post via Sgt. 1st Class Latoya Greene, who has 402,000 followers of her own on the social media platform.

More than 10,000 comments across multiple posts about beards in the military followed.

One such post elicited a short response that the site attributed to the 25th Infantry Division.

“To be clear, we are supportive of Soldiers who have shaving profiles,” the statement said, as quoted by Army W.T.F! Moments. “We are continuing to look into this situation. Thank you.”

Army 1st Sgt. Joseph Henninger of the 504th Military Intelligence Brigade added his story to the Facebook thread and shared his command photo showing him with a full beard.

In an email to Stars and Stripes on Monday, Henninger said that he knew he could have faced unspoken biases related to his promotion to master sergeant when he submitted his religious accommodation request in 2019.

“Fortunately, the Army did away with the DA Photo so I did not have to contend with the visual biases,” Henninger wrote, referring to the former requirement of a picture as part of a board promotion packet.

Henninger added that he has never received any grief for his beard while in uniform, and that beards do not detract from professionalism.

“The only way a beard will be an impediment would be because others cast judgment or have specific prejudices,” Henninger said. “Those people would have to be in very specific positions of leadership in order to affect career progression.”

Beard authorization without a waiver has been a recurring discussion point among service members, particularly since a 2021 Change.org petition with over 100,000 signatures called on then-Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston to approve beards.

Since then, senior enlisted leaders across the services have generally dismissed the idea, citing reasons ranging from hindering proper wear of gas masks to detracting from unit identity, professional appearance and discipline.

At an industry symposium last year, enlisted Space Force and Air Force leaders strongly rejected the notion of widespread beard wear.

“If you want to look cute with your skinny jeans and your beard, by all means do it someplace else,” said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez, then the senior enlisted adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Service members with pseudofollicilitis barbae, a skin condition that causes infections and other ailments, say they’ve had to consider whether such perceptions of how beards look in uniform would negatively affect them. It was only two years ago that the Navy and Marine Corps ended separations based on the diagnosis.

Parker said Tuesday that he wants to bring awareness to the struggles some soldiers with shaving profiles have and to promote fair treatment for all soldiers.

“I wouldn’t change for nothing in the world. What happened needed to happen,” Parker said. “I think it’s caused a great conversation.”

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