The Army’s Top Enlisted Man Is as Out of Touch as the Army’s Tattoo Policy
Soldiers are still pissed over the crackdown on ink
On March 2, Sgt. Maj. Dan Dailey—the U.S. Army’s top enlisted man—visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Dailey started the job in January, and the trip was his first official visit.
During a question-and-answer session with troops, a soldier bluntly criticized the Army’s restrictive tattoo policy—which limits the size and placement of ink, and even requires commanders to inspect their tatted soldiers for violations.
The serviceman said that as long as tattoos aren’t visible in a dress uniform, the brass should allow soldiers to have any tattoo they want.
He publicly told the Sergeant Major of the Army that he thinks the service’s current policy sucks and should change immediately.
Dailey asked the audience—a group of about 100 troops—if any of them agreed with their comrade. To Dailey’s surprise, almost the entire room raised their hands.
“I thought this had settled quite a bit,” he told the Army Times. “Obviously it has not.”
Dailey’s predecessor—Sgt. Maj. Raymond Chandler—took a hardline stance on tattoos that made him extremely unpopular with many soldiers. Chandler was vocal in his belief that troops with visible tattoos are unsightly, unprofessional and unreliable.
“The appearance of tattoos detracts from a uniformed service,” Chandler told a group soldiers at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in 2012.
“Now, if you have a tattoo that draws attention to yourself, you have to ask the question, are you a person who is committed to the Army?”
Chandler helped craft new tattoo restrictions that took effect back in March 2014. The backlash among veterans was intense. But when Chandler left his post in January, he told reporters that the media had blown the tattoo issue out of proportion.
He insisted that the media had amplified a vocal minority, that most soldiers agreed with him — and those who didn’t had gotten over it. That’s probably why the vocal and nearly unanimous rebuke at Lewis-McChord caught Dailey off guard.
Which is a problem. It indicates a major disconnect between the Army’s senior leaders and its rank and file. It’s also a lesson for Dailey, who serves as the enlisted class’s emissary to the Pentagon.
Voice of the G.I.
The Pentagon created the sergeant major of the Army position in 1966 to serve as an adviser to the branch’s top brass. As an enlisted soldier, he or she is in theory better able to empathize with regular soldiers because he or she is a regular soldier.
They’re supposed to be able to easily relate to enlisted troops, gauge morale and figure out what’s on their mind. They are uniquely placed to find out what soldiers really think about their equipment, training and Army policies.
One the SMA’s most important jobs is to be the enlisted soldier’s voice and advocate. He can tell generals how their soldiers feel and what they need—and tell the brass what junior soldiers often feel they can’t.
If Chandler truly believed what he said about soldiers with tattoos, it’s an indicator of how wildly removed he was from the troops he was supposed to represent. For many tattooed soldiers—especially combat veterans—it was a slap in the face.
It’s easy to see why it hit a nerve. The new tattoo guidelines—which Chandler claimed were shaped by conversations with enlisted men and women—were indeed harsh.
Under the initial policy change, the Army barred soldiers with tattoos visible below the elbow or calve from seeking an officer’s commission—forever. The policy also threatened dishonorable discharges for soldiers who got new tattoos.
Around the time the policy took effect, one veteran of multiple tours—who aspired to get a law degree and join the JAG corps—told War Is Boring he was bitter about the new policy. The soldier had tattoos on his calves, which were only visible while wearing the Army’s summer physical training uniform.
It was enough for the Army to disqualify him.
Though his G.I. bill benefits allowed him to pursue a law degree as a civilian, Army leaders apparently believed his tattoos made him unworthy of being an officer after risking his life in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many of the tattoos soldiers sport on their arms and legs denote unit loyalty or commemorate fallen friends and comrades. Some soldiers have said their tattoos represent their dedication to the service and their fellow troops.
The backlash was greater than Army leaders expected. Even many officers protested the policy, telling soldiers to get tattoos before the Army implemented the new guidelines and intentionally stalling the registration process.
In September—six months after the original policy change—the Army backtracked. The ground combat branch released updated guidelines, which now allows some serving troops with extant tattoos to be grandfathered in and seek commissions. But only if an officer endorses them.
Tattoos are increasingly common—even in professional corporate settings—and some soldiers voiced concerns that the restrictions could make the Army miss out on qualified recruits.
Dailey spoke to the soldiers at Lewis-McChord about tattoos and other issues at length. He admitted he couldn’t make recommendations solely based on their response, but he said he would take the tattoo issue—and the soldiers’ input—far more seriously.
He said that if he finds it’s a service-wide phenomenon, the Army may need to rethink its policy. But the tattoo issue may just be the tip of the iceberg—soldiers have a lot on their minds right now.
Soldiers are scared about losing their jobs through sequestration and downsizing. Female soldiers still worry about the threat of sexual violence—all of this while thousands of U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, and forces are steadily increasing in Iraq again.
Dailey replaced a sergeant major who many soldiers felt ignored them. He has a lot of work to do.
“The fact that he thought it was a non-issue and had settled shows how out of touch the entire command structure is with the opinions and needs of their soldiers,” one Army soldier said.
“His words are promising though, I’ll readily admit that,” the soldier added. “I’ve met and ‘spoke’ with several SMA’s and the majority didn’t even care enough to give you the ‘oh interesting I’ll look into this’ lip service.”