The military is struggling to find recruits right now, and the Army is no exception. With three months remaining in fiscal 2022, the service has only attained 40% of its enlisted recruiting goal, according to Army G-1 spokesperson Maj. Angel Tomko.
And that’s part of why Army Secretary Christine Wormuth issued a new policy authorizing troops to have small tattoos on their hands, ears and necks, Army officials explained Thursday morning.
Wormuth signed a directive Wednesday that expanded the service’s acceptable tattoo policy. The changes will be incorporated in the next update to AR 670-1, the Army’s appearance regulation.
The following tattoos are now authorized, according to the directive:
- One visible tattoo on each hand less than one inch in measurement. This tattoo cannot be on the fingers, though one ring tattoo per hand is okay, as are “an unlimited number of tattoos between the fingers, as long as they are not visible when the fingers are closed.”
- One tattoo on the back of a soldier’s neck, less than two inches in measurement.
- One tattoo behind each ear, no larger than one inch in measurement and not extending beyond the ear lobe.
Sgt. Maj. Ashleigh Sykes, who oversees uniform and appearance policy for the service’s personnel directorate, cautioned that some ink still isn’t okay.
“Those that rest in the four categories of racism, sexism, extremism or indecent tattoos [are still prohibited],” said Sykes. “We still do not allow tattoos on the face or [elsewhere on] the head, inside the eyelid, [inside] the mouth or inside of the ears.”
Sykes added that makeup tattoos, such as those that darken eyebrows or mimic eyeliner, remain authorized, and troops with existing waivers for larger tattoos will not be negatively affected by the new policy.
Why — and where else — the service is relaxing restrictions
Even under the old policy, many recruits joined the service with tattoos that were technically not authorized — they just needed to get a waiver during their enlistment process.
Easing tattoo restrictions are also a common way for military officials to access a broader recruiting pool. In 2006, the service drastically relaxed its tattoo policy in order to keep feeding more recruits into the training pipeline as the Iraq War moved into the surge era.
They’ve been controversial, too — former Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler III drew ire when he spearheaded an effort to restrict tattoos below the elbow and knee in 2014. The next SMA, Daniel Dailey, quickly rolled back that policy.
Instead, Sykes and senior officials responsible for accessions and manpower explained why now was the time to bring back neck, ear and hand tattoos.
Sykes argued that “good order and discipline is not affected by [the newly authorized] tattoos.”
“People First is allowing personnel to continue to serve and to join our military without a prohibition on certain tattoos that are now acceptable in society,” Sykes added.
Lin St. Clair, who oversees accessions as an assistant deputy secretary, explained that in fiscal 2020, the service processed more than 1,400 tattoo waiver requests for prospective soldiers, ultimately approving roughly 1,100.
“[While] the driving force behind [the new policy] wasn’t necessarily to increase accessions, that’s going to be a positive byproduct of it,” said St. Clair. He thinks eliminating the need for a waiver will reduce attrition in the accessions process, and that aligning Army policy with societal norms can help combat a seemingly declining proportion of young Americans who are eligible and willing to serve.
St. Clair said that recent Army research found that only around 23% of Americans age 17-24 are eligible to enlist without a waiver of some kind. Expanded medical records screenings have combined with increased childhood diagnoses of disqualifying conditions such as asthma or ADHD — many of which insurance companies require doctors to document to cover any services.
St. Clair also emphasized that the service is looking at “many” other policy changes to combat the recruiting slump, including well-worn moves like increased bonuses and more flexible contract options that have again come into play this year.
He revealed that all of the branches and senior Pentagon officials have formed a medical accessions standards working group that is weighing a potential overhaul of military medical standards.
“[The Pentagon] is running a couple pilots on certain medical conditions [for which] the services typically offer waivers to see if they can shorten that timeline for review, especially given that [the new medical screenings] can see back through history to any medical record in the applicant’s file,” St. Clair said.
Ultimately, added St. Clair, any moves made aren’t about “lowering” standards, as some contend.
“The Army hasn’t lowered standards,” he said. “[We’re] just trying to keep pace with changes in society [and] more access to medical records, and then using all that information to make a more informed decision about the applicant.”
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.