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Navy reconsiders booting corpsman over hairstyle

Aug. 8, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (SW/AW) Jessica Sims refused to change her hairstyle after officials at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Ill., told her she was out of regulation. She may be administratively separated. Left, the photo in Sims' application to become an RTC instructor.
Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (SW/AW) Jessica Sims refused to change her hairstyle after officials at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Ill., told her she was out of regulation. She may be administratively separated. Left, the photo in Sims' application to become an RTC instructor. (Photos courtesy HM2 Jessica Sims)
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The Navy is taking a second look at the unusual case of a boot camp instructor who was due to be kicked out August 13 for her “unauthorized” hairstyle, although she claims that the command singled her out for being a black woman with natural hair.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s office put a hold on the discharge of Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (SW/AW) Jessica Sims on August 8, pending a review of her circumstances, according to a statement.

“The Office of the Secretary of the Navy has directed the [chief of naval personnel] and [assistant Navy secretary for manpower and reserve affairs] to provide additional details of this case to ensure all facts of this case are understood,” said CNP spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello.

Sims, 32, a 12-year sailor with an unblemished record, couldbe honorably discharged after repeatedly being ordered to cut off the tightly twisted locks she’s worn for nearly a decade.

“I don’t think I should be told that I have to straighten my hair in order to be within what they think the regulations are, and I don’t think I should have to cover it up with a wig,” Sims said Aug. 4 phone interview.

Sims said she feels like she’s being discriminated against because she chooses to wear her natural hair in a bun, the way women with braided hair do.

Sims, in her unusual stand, contends that hair regulations are biased against the natural hairstyles of many African-American women, and her career is evidence they are ambiguous at best: She wore her hair in the same style for nine years in the Navy before being ordered to cut it.

“I do think that it’s a race issue,” Sims said. “The majority of the hairstyles that have the strictest regulations are hairstyles that black women would wear.”

The Navy, however, argued that all dreadlocks are out of regs, and because she has refused to cut them or cover them up, moved to honorably discharge her for “serious misconduct.”

Sims’ high-profile refusal to follow Navy regs comes in the wake of controversial new Army hair rules that prompted criticism from the black community and congressional leaders. Defense officials then ordered all services to send their hair regs and proposed changes to them for review. DoD’s response is said to be imminent.

'Natural state'

Sims has spent the past seven years in instructor billets. She decided to go for the pinnacle last year when she applied to teach recruits at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Illinois.

No one in any of her previous commands had raised a problem with her hairstyle, she recalled, and she was accepted to RTC after submitting her application along with a full-length photo that displayed her hair. Only role model sailors get to boot camp, and by all accounts, the Navy felt that she was.

Once she reported for duty in April, though, a chief confronted her about her tightly twisted locks, which fall to the middle of her back, worn in a bun. Sims was told to cut it off, or wear a wig over her natural hair.

She refused. Sims argued her hair had never been a problem before, and that the Navy’s uniform regulations don’t specifically prohibit her hairstyle.

Although African-American hair has many textures, it tends to grow outward. Navy regulations state that hair can’t protrude more than two inches from the head, so in order to make it lie flat, black women typically weave their hair into tight braids, cornrow it or straighten it using hot tools or chemical relaxers. Wigs are also common.

Navy regulations specifically ban “widely spaced individual hanging locks,” according to section 2201.1. Sims says her locks are narrow enough to be in keeping with the rule.

As Sims has understood it throughout her career, that means locks can’t be worn hanging, as they might if they were chin-length. However, because she wraps hers into a bun, her hair is within regulations, she asserts.

But her command says otherwise.

Whether Sims’ hair runs afoul of this regulation is ultimately up to her CO, Servello said in an Aug. 7 phone interview.

“We acknowledge that it’s impossible to provide examples of every appropriate or unacceptable hairstyle. Things change too much,” he said. “We try to give the commanding officers and the chain of command the parameters in which they can use their good judgment.”

Sims believes that she’s been disciplined for information contained in the “frequently asked questions” accompanying the uniform regs, rather than in the regs themselves.

“ ‘Twist and Dreadlock’ hairstyles are not authorized because they fall outside of the definition of braids and are often considered faddish hairstyles with a non-conservative appearance,” the FAQ states. “Additionally, braided and non-braided hairstyles that protrude from the head, hang individually or contain widely spaced locks or braids are not authorized.”

If the Navy wants all locks banned, Sims countered, then the regulation should state that explicitly. Furthermore, it begs the question of why closely spaced braids no more than one-quarter of an inch wide are all right, but not twists or locks.

The FAQ characterizes locks as “faddish and nonconservative,” which Sims said is offensive to professional women who’ve worn their hair that way for decades.

“That right there I take as an insult,” she said. “I was told, ‘Can’t you perm it? Can’t you put a wig on top of it? Can you cut it off?’ Is it because my hair is in its natural state that it’s unprofessional?”

She added that during her separation board, witnesses described her hair as “neat” and “professional,” even though they said it was technically out of regs as they understood them.

After formal counseling, her command decided to take her to captain’s mast for violating a lawful order or regulation, which she refused.

She asked for a court-martial instead. A civilian lawyer and Navy judge advocate told her that her hair didn’t count as “widely spaced” or “individual hanging locks,” so the case wouldn’t hold up.

But the day before her arraignment, Sims said, Navy officials informed her that they’d canceled the court-martial and decided to initiate an administrative separation. Sims said her lawyer told her it was because the judge knew that the Navy’s FAQ wouldn’t count as written regulations.

Sims said she believes the Navy didn’t want to take her to court because, if they lost, they wouldn’t have any recourse against her or her hair.

“Before any of my proceedings, the commanding officer — before his change of command — put in the paperwork to have my [instructor enlisted classification code] removed, because they told me that since I wouldn’t cut my hair that I was not worthy of leading recruits,” she said.

Then came the discharge proceedings. Servello stressed that the Navy gave Sims multiple opportunities to get her hair within regs and go back to work, but Sims said she considers the rules to be “discriminating against me” and refused to follow the orders.

Her command first asked to discharge her under other than honorable circumstances, but eventually amended it to an honorable discharge tagged as “serious misconduct.”

Even under this pressure, Sims refused to back down. She said many of the women at her previous command, Naval Medical Training Command at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, wore their hair just like hers, “to the point where people would confuse us.”

Before she left Texas, she said, a colleague told her that she might be treated differently at RTC, because most of the black women there wear wigs. Some of those chiefs and senior chiefs spoke to Sims about her case, she said, but a wig just wasn’t an option.

“Basically I was being told, ‘We need you to have that straight look,’ ” she said. “ ‘It makes you look more like your Asian or white counterparts.’ ”

Servello said the Navy doesn’t have plans to more narrowly define acceptable women’s hairstyles, as the Army recently did, but that the uniform office is always open to suggestions.

“What we try to do is, based on the questions and based on the feedback we get from the fleet, periodically we’ll review and adjust the wording and the guidelines so we can be more clear, as necessary,” he said.

But the regs are outdated, Sims said, and if they can’t include well-kept locks, they should at least ban them explicitly.

If the discharge goes through, Sims plans to take her benefits and put them toward school, enrolling in Loyola University Chicago. She said she’s not looking forward to the day she might have to explain to her employer why her separation code is for misconduct, but that she needed to make a point and set an example for her 13-year-old daughter: No amount of money or a career is worth discrimination.

“Someone has to take a stand. And even if my stand was as small as a mustard seed, maybe it opens someone’s eyes and they say, ‘You know what? We didn’t have to lose a sailor,’ ” she said.

Sims has been working at RTC’s Atlantic Fleet drill hall in between medical and administrative discharge appointments. The Navy said she will remain on active duty, but did not set a timeline for the review of her case, so for now, it’s "hurry up and wait,” she said.■

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