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Army mulls pros and cons of French manicures, tattoos in revised grooming policy

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Uniform Policy, U.S. Army.

The United States Army doesn't lack for challenges at the moment. Among the chief hurdles facing America's soldiers are grueling rounds of combat deployments, plans to withdraw from Iraq, projected budget cuts, and the integration of openly gay soldiers into the force since the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell earlier this year.

And now you can add to the above list the always tricky question of how much and what kind of expressive flourishes the military will permit to soldiers in its ranks. Raymond Chandler, the sergeant major of the Army, tells Army Times correspondent Lance Bacon that in preparing updated Army regulations on grooming and appearance, he's taken to Facebook to debate the finer points of French manicures, earrings, pony tails, and tattoos for U.S. troops.

"I believe that we can better visualize to the American people and the Army what it means to be an American soldier than we're doing now," Chandler told Army Times's Bacon. "Those can be done through personal grooming standards and standards of appearance and . . . the uniforms we wear and how we choose to wear them. I think we can do better. Now's the time to take a look at it."

"I would assume there are going to be some changes," but "exactly what they are it's too early to tell," Chandler added.

Chandler has taken to Facebook to get some initial feedback from the troops to possible proposed changes to the Army's regulations on personal grooming and appearance of uniforms. Among the measures he's pondering are more extensive regulations on tattoos and bans on French manicures.

Among the nearly 400 comments he has so far received, many have opined that they "don't want to see so many tattoos," Bacon writes. "I think the tattoo policy is a little loose," Army Material Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Riling told Bacon. "I don't like tattoos on the neck where they are visible. If they're not visible and they're covered up, I think that's a soldier's prerogative."

And while some respondents said they didn't like seeing women soldiers wearing earrings, others wondered if the Army didn't have more pressing concerns.

"How have we gone from debating whether women should be allowed into combat arms branches to if we should be able to wear earrings?" one unnamed female non-commissioned officer respondent replied on Facebook. "This is the United States Army, and there is no time for 'pretty' here. I am a female [non-commissioned officer] NCO and while I embrace my womanhood, the bottom line upfront is that ponytails, French manicures, earrings, etc., will not enhance my ability to train and lead soldiers . . . . Please don't empower me as a female, empower me as an NCO."

But Chandler said the goal of the more detailed grooming guidance is "not only to bring change, but to add clarity," Bacon wrote. In a culture that has regulations for pretty much everything, grooming is not just about personal choice.

"We've got a regulation that governs this," Chandler told Bacon. "It was last updated in 2005, and we've published 40 changes since then on the uniform. A basic part of the non-commissioned officer role is the uniform and the appearance of the soldier."

One idea Chandler has to help soldiers stay more fully abreast of Army policies on grooming and uniforms is to centralize the information online.

He has suggested launching a Wikipedia-style site that "is updated online and basically live." The material on the site will be updated "as changes to grooming and uniform standards are vetted," Bacon wrote--permitting the site to "immediately enter the reference material as text and visual aids" once new policies get promulgated. "Soldiers also would be notified when policies are updated," Bacon added.

As for recent reports of some U.S. forces taking a shine to the art of eyebrow grooming practiced by barbers in Afghanistan? Chandler may be tempted to leave such decisions on that issue to his counterparts in the top brass of the Marines.

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