So it looks like it’s time to have another look at the Army’s new personal appearance regulations, the increasingly controversial AR 670-1. It’s been in the news a couple of times over the past week as troops keep finding issues with the standards they’re expected to comply with.
First, there was a crackdown on unauthorized boots. A PowerPoint presentation has been doing the rounds of garrison-minded senior NCOs, condemning a whole range of popular field boots to the back of the closet because they don’t meet the new appearance standards. Never mind that they’re the boots many soldiers perform best in; they don’t look just right. Many of these boots have been worn for the last 5 to 7 years while 2 wars were going on. But they are no longer “authorized.” Odd that they were good enough for wartime but not good enough for peace…
Next it emerged that a lot of female African-American soldiers are having real trouble with the list of approved hair styles. Many of them can’t find an authorized style that works and are having to use straightening products or extensions to stay on the right side of the line. The problem, they say, is that nobody consulted with them about what natural styles work well with military headgear. Hair rules that don’t work without expensive cosmetic work obviously have problems.
And now one of the most hotly debated sections of the regulations has reared its head – tattoos. A Kentucky guardsman is suing the Army for an interpretation of the rules that, he says, is preventing him from applying for a Special Forces aviation unit. Staff Sgt. Adam Thorogood has an extensive collection of ink that was legal under the old regulations, but now AR 670-1 says the designs on his arm are excessive.
Regulations change over time; we all expect that. What’s annoyed SSG Thorogood is that he’s now being punished for something that wasn’t against the rules when he had it done and that he couldn’t have predicted. That doesn’t matter to the Army, though. His existing ink is grandfathered in to an extent, but he’s barred from applying for commissioning or a warrant officer’s post.
One of the lawyers representing Thorogood is arguing that AR670-1 violates his client’s right to free speech. That probably isn’t going to wash; everyone in the military understands that they’ve voluntarily accepted restrictions on their right to express themselves. The attorney has another, better point though – it’s unconstitutional to change the legal status of an act committed before the relevant law was enacted, so while Thorogood wouldn’t be allowed to get his visible tattoos now, he shouldn’t face any adverse consequences because he had them already.
Nobody’s denying that the Army needs to set standards to keep its people looking professional. The problem seems to be the way the standards have been set and the rigor they’re being applied with. It’s not right that female soldiers have to spend their money on hair extensions to manage an acceptable style; it’s not right that serviceable boots are banned because the ends of the sole cross an arbitrary line, and it’s not right that people’s careers are being frozen because of tattoos that didn’t break the rules when they were inked.
One or two complaints about the new rules could be overlooked; this is the Army, and some soldiers will complain about anything. There are a lot more than one or two gripes, though, and they’re aimed at multiple sections of AR 670-1. It might be time for the service to have a rethink.