A US national guard soldier, with dreams of joining an Army special operations unit, is suing the Army over what he claims is an ‘unconstitutional tattoo policy’. Staff Sgt. Adam C. Thorogood of Nashville, Tennessee, states that his full sleeve tattoo isn’t harmful but the US Army is using the body art as a reason not to allow him to join the special operations unit or be promoted to any other position.
Army Regulation 670-1 went into effect in March, bans tattoos below the elbow and knee and visible tattoos on the neck. Soldiers who had tattoos prior to the new regulations coming into force, will be grandfathered in. Many tattoo parlours close to US army bases witnessed a surge in business prior to the regulations coming into force as soldiers clamoured to have their ink qualify under the grandfather policy. However, under the new regulations, any soldier with tattoos on forearms or below the knee is barred from seeking a promotion to warrant officer or commissioning as an officer regardless of when he or she got the tattoos.
According to Thorogood’s lawyer, Robin May, the new regulations not only infringe upon his right to free speech, but violate a constitutional ban on retroactive laws that changes the status of actions that were committed before the law came into force.
“It specifically restricts the liberty of this class of soldier to advance their careers regardless of their skills, abilities, awards, leadership roles and overall desirability to the army as a whole,” May argues in his legal complaint to the US district court in the Western District of Kentucky.
It’s ironic that the Army is banning tattoos at a time when tattoo culture is entering the mainstream. Once the preserve of the alternative, lawyers, school teachers and doctors are now as likely to have tattoos as musicians and soldiers. An estimated one in five in the UK now has at least one tattoo. You can get a tattoo in Selfridges. David Cameron’s wife has one, much to the tabloid newspaper’s delight. Tattoos have long been a part of military culture and the ban at a time when the most conservative of professions, investment banks and law firms, are accepting inked professionals (though sadly not in the workplace of Wigs And Gowns), is somewhat surprising. However, it is notable that in 2006, the Navy also announced stricter rules surrounding body art and rules state that forearm tattoos can be no wider than a hand’s breadth.
The ban has incurred the ire of many soldiers throughout the ranks of the US Army. Many, who saw a long career head of themselves, have had their hopes and dreams dashed in one foul swoop now that forearm and lower leg tattoos will deny them opportunity for promotion despite them having no such consequence at the time they got tattooed. Furthermore, many soldier’s tattoos commemorate fellow-soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq. One soldier, Spc. Derek Tope, 24,who sports a large nautical tattoo on his forearm told Politix;
“I got it for my friend, Pfc. Donald Crombie, I’ve known him forever. He had a nautical star on his elbow and he died in our first month deployed in Iraq. I got it in his memory, as a memorial to him.”
So, will Thorogood be successful? Well, even before we get to the constitutionality of retrospective laws, it’s notable that the Arizona Supreme Court have held that tattooing was a constitutionally protected form of free speech in a recent decision concerning a zoning dispute over a tattoo parlour. We don’t see this one reaching the courts and have a feeling the US Army may be forced to rethink its policies. Just this week US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel ordered the US military to review the new policies on hairstyles that ban styles including braids, twists, cornrows and dreadlocks, many of which are natural and popular styles among black women (Army Regulation 670-1 also covered hairstyles, fingernails, jewellery and maternity work uniforms). More than 17,000 people, backed by female members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill, had signed a petition submitted to the White House’s website urging the Hagel to revise the rules.
“The current policy is the equivalent of a black majority military telling its thousands of white soldiers that they are required to have dreadlocks or afros,” Ayana Byrd and Lori L Tharps, authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,wrote in a New York Times article on Thursday.
More to come on this one!
Image -David Goldman via www.sikhphilosophy.net