As the military struggles with dismal recruiting numbers, a congressional watchdog is suggesting that confusion over tattoo policies may be a factor in recruiting and retention for the services.
The 28-page report from the Government Accountability Office, released Wednesday and requested by Congress last year, found that, while most military branches allow tattoo waivers that might make exceptions for potential troops with unauthorized ink, the requirements for those waivers are unclear.
"Although each of the armed forces allows waivers for certain tattoo restrictions for recruits, the policies do not always mention or provide clear guidance on the requirements for these waivers," according to the GAO report. "Clear guidance on waivers for unauthorized tattoos would provide consistent information about requirements for waiver requests and conditions for approval."
"This could clarify whether tattoo prevalence affects future or continued military service," the report continued.
The study was conducted over six months with GAO researchers analyzing and comparing the six services' current and previous tattoo policies, interviewing officials, and examining the internal processes used by each branch to determine which tattoos are eligible for a waiver.
In addition to finding that the requirements for a waiver are confusing, researchers found that "recruiting and retention data do not include tattoo-specific data" -- a flaw, they say that, if fixed, could inform recruiters that a clarified tattoo exception might bring an increasingly tattooed pool of military age applicants to their door.
"Social acceptance and prevalence of tattoos have increased over the last 2 decades, particularly among young Americans," the study reported. "By providing clear policies on tattoo waivers, the armed forces could clarify whether tattoos are a barrier to future or continued military service."
The GAO made six recommendations, one to each service, that generally requests that each branch update or clarify its tattoo policies. Some services, like the Army, have recently relaxed their tattoo policies amid recruiting difficulties, but for young people looking to join the military overall, the variety of rules between each branch might be overwhelming.
Generally, the services have stipulations for recruits on the size, location and content of a tattoo. Within the last decade, most of the services have been slowly rolling back tattoo restrictions at different rates -- something that has caused confusion over tattoo policy in general.
For example, the Space Force allows one tattoo on the neck or behind the ear that is no larger than one inch, according to the report. Its parent service, the Air Force, does not allow any neck tattoos. The Navy allows hand and finger tattoos, but Marines -- whose service falls under the Department of the Navy -- are not allowed to have any hand tattoos outside of one ring tattoo on one hand, according to the GAO.
All services have restrictions on tattoo content in some way, typically when tattoos are racist, sexist or extremist. The Navy, Marines and Coast Guard prohibit tattoo content that involves drugs or gangs, according to the report.
The report also pointed out that most of the services fell short on assessing whether tattoos have effects on the force, with some exceptions like the Army using the Joint Advertising Market Research and Studies analysis to inform 2017 tattoo policies. Other branches, like the Navy, told auditors they used waiver data to assess recruiting challenges, but not for retention.
The variations of tattoo policy persist between services, even when troops are already in uniform.
"The Marine Corps policy states that service members can request a waiver for tattoos outside an authorized location, but notes that the request is unlikely to be approved," the report said. "Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard officials stated that service members can request waivers to the tattoo policy. The Navy does not currently offer waivers for service members."
When asked whether the GAO's assessment about the Navy's waiver policy was accurate, the service did not respond to Military.com's requests for confirmation on Wednesday or Thursday.
The report says that waivers for unauthorized content -- racism, drugs, gang affiliation, etc. -- are generally not available.
Before publication, the GAO said they sent their findings to the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security for a response. While the Army and Marine Corps agreed with the study, the Navy, Air Force and Space Force only partially agreed with the recommendations with mostly technical and verbiage differences that were reconciled in the final report, according to the GAO.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.