The U.S. Army Backtracks on Its Terrible Tattoo Policy
New top enlisted soldier is suddenly way more popular after bringing back ink
On April 1, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno announced that the service would begin loosening restrictions on tattoos … again.
“Society is changing its view of tattoos and we have to change along with that,” Odierno said. “It makes sense. Soldiers have grown up in an era when tattoos are much more acceptable and we have to change along with that.”
The Army’s new policy will allow any tattoo that isn’t extremist or discriminatory, so long as it’s not visible while wearing a dress uniform. After less than a year of exile, sleeve and leg tattoos are coming back.
The announcement came on April Fool’s Day, which made soldiers and veterans wonder if Odierno was serious. Troops speculated on social media that the policy shift was a cruel prank. But not long after, Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey insisted it was no joke.
“We didn’t pick April Fool’s Day. It’s real,” Dailey told the Army Times. “I have a copy of the AR 670–1 [regulations] update here.”
The change came a month after soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state told Dailey they hated the Army’s tattoo restrictions. Dailey said the near unanimous rebuke surprised him.
It was his first official troop visit as the Army’s top enlisted soldier, and it was clear he had a lot to learn. If he was unaware of how strongly soldiers felt about the tattoo policy—which is evident to anyone who’s been to a happy hour near an Army base lately — what else didn’t he know?
Dailey’s predecessor — Sgt. Maj. Ray Chandler — championed the hated regulations. The policy limited the size and placement of tattoos and required commanders to inspect soldiers for violations.
Worse, it banned soldiers — including multi-tour veterans — with visible tattoos below the elbow or calve from seeking officer’s commissions.
Chandler vigorously defended the policy and his position in the press. He said that tattoos were unsightly, unprofessional and unbefitting of American troops.
Chandler went on to suggest that troops with tattoos may not have the same level of character and loyalty as those who didn’t. Soldiers — both inked and uninked — were pissed.
After just a few months of the ban, the Army updated the policy to allow soldiers with existing tattoos to seek officer’s commissions. But only if their commanders endorsed them.
The sergeant major of the Army serves as the Pentagon’s liaison to enlisted soldiers. But Chandler’s hard line stance on tattoos made him unpopular with many soldiers and veterans — even officers.
Dailey assumed the role in January. At 42, he’s the youngest soldier in history to hold the position. He earned a Bronze Star for valor fighting against Shia militias in Sadr City. His combat experience and youth made the troops cautiously optimistic.
“He’s a grunt. Like a real grunt,” one soldier told War Is Boring. “We haven’t had somebody like him as the SMA in a really long time.”
When soldiers told Dailey their thoughts on the tattoo policy at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, he said he’d take their complaints into consideration and seek input from other soldiers. He wanted to make sure their gripes weren’t an isolated phenomenon.
After just a month of touring installations, he evidently found enough discontent among the enlisted to rethink the policy. The old restrictions are still in effect, but Dailey and Odierno insist the change will take effect soon.
It’s a move that’s already won Dailey accolades on social media, and made him the subject of multiple military memes. But the tattoo policy is only the first in a long list of problems for the SMA.
Dailey took on the role at a time when the Army is under considerable stress. Budget and personnel cuts loom. The Pentagon has increased troop levels in Iraq, and the White House has slowed the withdrawal of American soldiers from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Army struggles to fight sexual assault, soldier suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dailey’s working on it. He’s already championed his new “not in my squad” initiative to encourage junior soldiers to take the lead in preventing sexual assault.
The tattoos were a relatively easy fix. These other issues will take far more time to address.