Military Tattoo Policies May Thwart Potential Recruits: Carter

Service member holding a mug.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wednesday military policies on tattoos could be rejecting otherwise qualified recruits, but didn't say whether the guidelines would be changed.

At a recent meeting with recruiters in the Northeast, Carter said he was told, "Well, you really ought to take a look at the tattoo policy." Each service has its own tattoo policy, and the secretary didn't cite a specific branch.

Even so, Carter said recruiters told him they are turning away potential recruits who would "otherwise be great people" for military service, "but they don't meet our tattoo policy."

"I don't know what to do about that," the secretary said, while restating his intention to broaden recruiting efforts. "I continue to want to make sure that we're tapping into the entire population," he said.

Carter's comments came in response to a question during an event billed as a "Worldwide Troop Talk" with service members stationed at bases around the globe.

Tattoo policies vary by service as to location and size, as well as content, to ensure that personnel maintain appearance standards for each service branch. Offensive symbols such as swastikas or gang signs are forbidden. Recruits' tattoos are usually checked when they are given their initial physical.

Last year, the Army eliminated limits on the size or number of tattoos soldiers may have on their arms and legs. The previous regulation limited soldiers to four tattoos below the elbow or knee, none bigger than the wearer's hand.

Face, neck and hand tattoos remain against regulations with the exception of one ring tattoo per hand.

Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said at the time, "Society is changing its view of tattoos, and we have to change along with that. It makes sense. Soldiers have grown up in an era when tattoos are much more acceptable, and we have to change along with that."

Earlier this year, the Navy eased its tattoo policy specifically to aid recruitment. Under the new regulations, sailors are allowed to have neck and sleeve tattoos, and even tattoos behind their ears.

Most recently, the Marine Corps published an updated tattoo policy in June, allowing slightly bigger arm tattoos and wedding ring ink, but keeping a ban on sleeve tattoos in place. A detailed 32-page policy document included illustrations and diagrams to eliminate confusion with the new regulations.

"The commandant said it best … that we've attempted to balance the individual desires of Marines with the need to maintain the disciplined appearance expected of our profession," Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green said when the policy rolled out.

-- Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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