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Tattoo battle: Staff sergeant fights for soldiers' right to get ink

May. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Staff Sgt. Adam Thorogood, a Guardsman who served 10 years on active duty, displays the tattoo on his left forearm. He has a total of 11 tattoos, most honoring his service.
Staff Sgt. Adam Thorogood, a Guardsman who served 10 years on active duty, displays the tattoo on his left forearm. He has a total of 11 tattoos, most honoring his service. (Photos courtesy Staff Sgt. Adam Thorogood)
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Thorogood has spoken out for the first time since he filed a $100 million lawsuit against the Army's tattoo reg. He had hopes of becoming a warrant officer, but his tattoos run afoul of the new rules. (Photos courtesy Staff Sgt. Adam Thorogood)

Staff Sgt. Adam Thorogood mostly accepts the latest revision to AR 670-1, the Army’s regulation on grooming and appearance standards.

But he takes serious issue with a single section in the document: the one that prohibits enlisted soldiers with illegal tattoos from getting commissioned as officers or appointed as warrant officers.

That body art rule, by Thorogood’s estimation, has effectively snuffed out his career aspirations in the Army.

But rather than accept his fate, Thorogood has dropped a $100 million lawsuit on the federal government, arguing the restrictions on tattoos are a violation of his freedom of speech and the freedom of all his Army brothers and sisters who choose to wear ink.

In an exclusive interview with Army Times on May 9, Thorogood said he is sure the lawsuit will end his career, but he is fighting for others like him.

“Somebody’s going to have to step up and say this is not right,” said Thorogood, of Bravo Company, 1-149 Infantry in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. “I figured I was in a position to make a change, not for myself but for others who don’t have a voice. They don’t have an option but to drive on.”

Thorogood served 10 years on active duty and is now a member of the Kentucky National Guard. He filed a federal lawsuit May 1 in U.S. District Court in Paducah, Kentucky.

The lawsuit acknowledges that troops have an abridged right to free speech, but only insofar as it hinders their mission, discipline morale or loyalty. The lawsuit argues in effect that the ban itself is hindering the Army’s mission, since it is preventing the most qualified candidates from applying to become officers or warrant officers because they have certain tattoos.

The suit also argues 670-1 is an ex post facto “law” because it applies retroactively to a subsection of soldiers, acting as, “an absolute bar to an otherwise qualified group of soldiers.”

Finally, though the regulation does not say so outright, according to the lawsuit’s interpretation, Thorogood could be subjected to punishment under military law if he were to attempt to submit his accession packet.

Thorogood said the hefty size of the claim is not about getting rich. Rather, it is intended to get the Army’s attention.

“You’ve got to start the conversation somehow,” he said. “You don’t just rock the boat to wake up the ignorant passengers, you have to flip it over.”

The ban, he said, is thwarting his long-standing dream to return to active duty and join the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment as a warrant officer helicopter pilot.

“I don’t want to say anything disparaging about the service, but it is crushing when you have your goal in sight and it gets taken away from you that quickly,” he said.

Thorogood deployed twice to Afghanistan — once as a sniper — and twice to Iraq. While at war, he was part of a reconnaissance team that worked with artillery and American air power, and he realized he wanted to fly helicopters.

With that in mind, he completed his active-duty service at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and transferred to the Guard so that he could pursue a degree in aerospace at Middle Tennessee State University and certifications in flying planes.

But he was shocked when he encountered an online leak of the new appearance reg, which took effect at the end of March.

“I was really disappointed because I’d been working on this goal for so long,” he said. “Every pilot wants to be a Nightstalker, and I knew if I completed this degree in time to get an appointment as a warrant officer, it makes me an extremely attractive candidate and increases my chances of being selected to the 160th.”

Under the revision, enlisted soldiers may not have more than four tattoos below the elbows or below the knees. Each of the four tattoos may not exceed the size of the wearer’s palm.

Soldiers who already have the ink are grandfathered in. However, any enlisted soldier with illegal tattoos is barred from seeking a promotion to warrant officer or commissioning as an officer after July 1.

In an online video posted in March, when the changes were made, Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler said appearance matters and should “be a matter of personal pride” to soldiers.

Army officials have said, as does the regulation, that soldiers who run afoul of the new regs may apply for waivers or exceptions to policy, to the Army’s two-star director of personnel management, with their chain of command’s endorsement. Also, an Army Recruiting Command memo issued May 2 — the day after the lawsuit was filed — notes that warrant officer applicants, after the July 1 deadline, may submit a tattoo waiver request.

Despite waiver opportunities, the lawsuit argues the process is deficient and that there is no guarantee of due process. Any exceptions, the lawsuit argues, are under the control of a recruiting battalion commander, subject to the approval of the director of military personnel management. It decries the lack of any provisions or guidance describing what skills or qualifications would warrant an exception.

The better way, Thorogood said, would be to grandfather in troops like him, letting them gradually disappear from the Army over the next decade or two.

“Why stop me from being the best leader I can be because I have tattoos that were previously authorized and now I’m being told you’re grandfathered but not grandfathered?” he said.

Thorogood declined to say how his chain of command has reacted to his lawsuit, though he said his peers and battle buddies have been supportive.

“A lot of them understand it, that this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I’m being stopped from doing it,” he said. “Some of them are also as frustrated as I am.”

News of the lawsuit has attracted thousands of comments, both positive and negative, to the Army Times Facebook page.

Robin May, a Kentucky-based attorney who represents Thorogood, said she is upset over the critics. She said Thorogood is an outstanding soldier who was active outside the wire.

With some coaxing from May, Thorogood told Army Times he served alongside posthumous Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti and Staff Sgt. Patrick Lybert, who was killed in the same action as Monti.

He wears two KIA bracelets, one for Lybert and the other for Pfc. Charles Persing, a battle buddy from basic training who was killed by a mortar barrage in Iraq in 2004.

Over Thorogood’s heart, he has a tattoo of a fist holding Persing’s dog tags, encircled by the quote from Plato, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Among his 11 tattoos are the words “pork-eating crusader,” in Arabic on his torso. He said he got the tattoo while on R&R in Australia in 2010.

On his right forearm are the words, “life is too short to dance with ugly women,” in Latin, which reminds him contradictorily that “beauty isn’t everything.” “It’s not meant to be disparaging to anyone,” he said.

Covering his left forearm are tattoos of a three-member sniper team, a series of skulls, a sniper logo and an ambigram of the words “Fear Is the Mind Killer” — from the “Dune” science-fiction novels.

He never read the books, but the words inspired him when he heard them on a deployment.

“It reminds me that fear can get you or another person killed,” he said.

May noted the irony that her client’s tattoos are almost all service related.

“The best leaders, the most capable leaders ... are tattooed,” said May. “You should not single out people who are otherwise capable and say ‘There’s something cosmetic about them I don’t like.’ ”

The lawsuit marks the second high-profile challenge to the revised appearance regulations. On April 29, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the services to review their hairstyle policies after the Congressional Black Caucus objected to 670-1’s ban on twists, dreadlocks and large cornrows — styles predominantly worn by African-American women.

Despite’s Thorogood’s personal battle, as a staff sergeant he is still warning his soldiers to obey the regulation. In a recent formation of his platoon, he told them that in spite of his lawsuit, they were not to get any fresh ink.

“I made it clear I support the regulation, I just have a problem with one sentence,” he said.

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