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Tattoos Hold Recruits Back From Military Careers

Tattoo shop. Shane M. Phipps/U.S. Air Force

If recruiters could send your kids a message, it would sound something like this:

Lay off the ink.

Covering yourself in tattoos can close a lot of career doors, including those in the military -- which, ironically, was once about the only place tattoos were cool.

Policies vary a bit among the branches, but there's one common theme:

Too big, too visible or too tasteless, and you and your tats aren't welcome.

Capt. Corey Hill and his team of Army recruiters see it play out just about every day. Promising candidates walk into the recruiting office in Norfolk's Janaf shopping center only to walk out, rejected because of their tattoos.

It's gotten even tougher since spring, when the Army tightened its policy to ban ink above the collar and below the wrist. The service, cutting its ranks after the wars, can afford to be picky now.

"We needed more soldiers after 9/11 so we were more lenient," Hill said. "Now, we're going back to our old standards. It's about image -- being professional and looking like it."

Tattoos on hands and fingers are out in the Marine Corps as well, though they're acceptable to the Navy and Air Force, depending on their size. No service allows tattoos anywhere on the body that are vulgar, racist, sexist, anti-American, drug related, or associated with gangs, hate or extremist groups.

Beyond that, the policies are a patchwork of math and measurements -- and sometimes pure opinion, which can lead to confusion. Is a Confederate flag considered offensive? One recruiter says yes. Another says no.

One morning last week, four out of the five recruits in the Janaf office had tattoos, and their body art was being scrutinized and inventoried.

Dejuan Nixon, 18, had already passed muster and was preparing to swear in. His love of music was tattooed on the inside of his right forearm -- a keyboard surrounded by musical notes and lots of scroll -- which he got when he was just 15.

He's lucky to be blessed with long fingers. The Army allows a total of four tattoos between elbow and wrist, knee and ankle -- as long as none are bigger than the size of the wearer's extended hand. Able to satisfy that measuring stick, if only barely, Nixon went off to take his oath.

"I was worried," he said. "I wasn't sure it would be OK."

An Air Force recruiter might have turned Nixon away. That branch uses a formula that would have required a tape measure, some very specific instructions and multistep calculations to determine the square inches of Nixon's forearm versus his tattoo. If the ink covered more than 25 percent of his skin, he'd be out of luck.

Critics say it makes no sense for the military to be so snobbish about tattoos, since the ink craze that's swept the civilian world was seeded by the service itself. Sailors have long marked their arms with anchors, soldiers with the names of fallen comrades. Now, tattoos are practically mainstream, a form of self-expression displayed by millions.

Keep it to yourself, says the military. We're not joining you. You're joining us, and we make the rules.

Last week, Richard Chaney, 21, and Ashanti Bracey, 19, learned that real-world lesson, plus some.

Both had passed all their enlistment hurdles -- physicals, background checks, IQ, personality and drug tests. With their tattoos photographed and approved at the recruiting office, both had been sent to the Army's processing center in Petersburg, where their entry into the service screeched to a halt.

Each has a tattoo on the inside of one wrist -- ink that the final round of screeners flagged as too close to the hand to meet the Army's new policy.

So instead of swearing in Thursday at the recruiting office, as planned, both were heading to tattoo removal shops to start laser treatments.

"I think it's ridiculous, but I'm going to do it," Chaney said.

"Me too," Bracey said. "I've worked too hard. No tattoo is going to stop me now."

Removal is painful and pricey, even with the military discounts often offered. Stacey Goldmeier, a co-owner at Atlantic Laser Tattoo Removal in Virginia Beach, gives 10 percent off -- which makes an average session run $90.

A tattoo like Bracey's -- an infinity circle with the word "LOVE" -- typically takes six sessions, six to eight weeks apart, and as long as a year to disappear. In the meantime, her military career is on hold.

Goldmeier sees plenty of military-related customers. When policies change, those already in the service have their tattoos automatically "grandfathered in," but their presence can affect promotions and assignments.

"They know if they don't get it off, it will hold them back," she said.

Full-sleeve tattoos -- waivered in wartime -- are being lasered into smaller sections to meet size or count criteria. Tiny tattoos behind ears -- stars, butterflies, hearts -- are being removed.

New policies can be hard all around. "We're still trying to figure it all out," Hill said.

One of his recent tasks was to document every tattoo on his current soldiers so the Army can keep an eye out for fresh body art that doesn't meet standards.

If any turns up, the offender will have two choices: remove it or face discharge.

On recruiting days at local high schools, Hill said, he talks about a lot of things, but tattoos are always part of the conversation.

"Kids are making these choices when they're so young," he said, "with no idea of how it can impact their future."

In other words: Think before you ink.

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