WASHINGTON – The Army has a message for the growing legions of flamboyantly tattooed American teens: Uncle Sam even wants you.
Facing one of the worst recruiting climates in the all-volunteer military’s history, the Army has decided to relax standards that dictate which parts of a soldier’s body can be festooned with body art. Specifically, the service now will accept recruits with tattoos on their neck and hands.
The service long has prohibited soldiers from having tattoos on places that are not covered by a dress uniform. But after missing Army recruiting goals last year, commanders are looking for every way possible to expand the pool of candidates.
Over the past year, the Army has begun accepting more recruits who score poorly on mental aptitude tests and more who don’t have high school diplomas. It has begun accepting more candidates with criminal records and histories of drug abuse, and has experimented with raising the maximum age at which a person can enter the Army.
The new tattoo policy will “assist in the recruitment of highly qualified soldiers who would otherwise be eliminated,” according to the Pentagon directive announcing the change earlier this year.
The directive still prohibits any tattoos that are “extremist, indecent, sexist or racist.” And, in true Army fashion, there are strict guidelines about where on the neck the tattoo may be located. Neck tattoos are only allowed on the back of the neck, a bodily region the Army officially defines as the area “under the ear lobe and across the back of the head.”
Pentagon officials say the updated policy is simply an attempt by the Army to connect with mainstream American youths. Tattoos are a staple among pop singers and basketball stars, and young people are finding ever more creative places on their bodies to decorate.
With more American teenagers tattooing their limbs and torsos, officials say, it would be foolish for the military to adhere to strict regulations on skin art – especially given the difficulties that the Army is having recruiting in the midst of a bloody and increasingly unpopular war.
“American youth tend to have tattoos now. The demographic is changing,” said Lt. Col Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman. “If a kid is in good shape and passes all the tests, do Americans really want us to say no to him because he’s got tattoos? I don’t think so.”
But some critics see the new regulations as more ominous, and say that relaxing the tattoo restriction is yet another case of the Army lowering standards to meet recruiting quotas.