National guardsman takes on might of army over new rules on tattoos

America Letter: revised rules on appearance and grooming unconstitutional, says Adam Thorogood

Under US army rules known as “Army Regulation 670-1”, which came into effect on March 31st, large tattoos below the elbow, popularly known as “sleeve tattoos” or knee are banned. Soldiers who already have tattoos can keep them and remain in service. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Under US army rules known as “Army Regulation 670-1”, which came into effect on March 31st, large tattoos below the elbow, popularly known as “sleeve tattoos” or knee are banned. Soldiers who already have tattoos can keep them and remain in service. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, May 3, 2014, 01:00

Adam C Thorogood of Nashville, Tennessee, had ambitions to join a special operations unit in the US military. He served as a decorated army soldier and sniper for 10 years and transferred to the reserves, the National Guard, to study at university with hopes of becoming an officer and helicopter pilot.

This week Thorogood, a member of the National Guard in Kentucky with 44 months of combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, issued legal proceedings against the secretary of the US army in the US district court, seeking $100 million (€72 million) in damages.

He claimed that new army regulations on tattoos, part of revised rules on appearance and personal grooming, is unconstitutional because it “criminalises activity that was previously not so classified by making the tattoo policy punitive”, according to his legal complaint filed on Thursday.

The rules, known as “Army Regulation 670-1”, came into effect on March 31st and apply to the general appearance of soldiers, covering hairstyles, fingernails, jewellery and maternity work uniforms.


Visible tattoos
Large tattoos below the elbow, popularly known as “sleeve tattoos”, or knee are banned. Soldiers who already have tattoos can keep them and remain in service, but no more than four tattoos on the forearm or leg below the knee are permitted – as long as each is no bigger than the wearer’s hand.

Thorogood is aggrieved that the new rule acts as “an absolute bar” to an otherwise qualified group of soldiers seeking a commission as an officer or promotion up the chain of command.

“It specifically restricts the liberty of this class of soldier to advance their careers regardless of their skills, abilities, awards, leadership roles and overall desirability to the army as a whole,” his lawyers argue in his legal complaint to the US district court in the Western District of Kentucky.

Tattoos are very popular in the army and have long been part of the culture and tradition, particularly among infantry proud to wear their allegiance to a particular division of the military.

“One would be hard-pressed to find an infantryman who does not have at least one tattoo, especially an infantryman with combat experience,” Thorogood’s lawyers said.

The soldier has 11 tattoos, among them a sleeve tattoo on his left arm that includes the image of skulls, the sniper logo of a serpent and spear, and the words “Fear Is The Mind Killer”.

Appearance is everything in the military, a sign of the professionalism and discipline expected of any soldier. On a recent trip to the US marine recruit training depot in Parris Island, South Carolina, an officer told me that one of the recruits’ night-time tasks was to cut off “Irish pennants”. This is the rather derogatory slang term for a loose or untidy piece of thread on a military uniform. (The phrase stems from British naval officers who used it to describe a frayed rope on a ship’s rigging.)

Tattoos have grown more popular in the army in recent times, despite efforts by branches of the military to tighten up on appearance and personal grooming over the past decade. Tattoo artists reported a rush of soldiers seeking tattoos last month to take advantage of a 30-day grace period before the revised regulations on appearance are enforced, unit by unit, curtailing further ink work.


Hairstyle policies
Thorogood may take hope from the response of the US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel to complaints about other controversial rules within the new AR 670-1 regulations.

On Tuesday, Hagel ordered the US military to review the new policies on hairstyles that limit or ban braids, twists, cornrows and dreadlocks, some of which are natural styles popular among African-American women.

The Pentagon was responding to complaints about racial bias and offensive language. More than 17,000 people, backed by female members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill, signed a petition submitted to the White House’s website urging the Obama administration to review the rules.

“The current policy is the equivalent of a black majority military telling its thousands of white soldiers that they are required to have dreadlocks or afros,” Ayana Byrd and Lori L Tharps, authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, wrote in a New York Times opinion article on Thursday.

In a racially diverse military, keeping up appearances is a matted business.