Recent surveys on proposed uniform changes have sparked calls from Marines for another review of tattoo policies and the ban on silkies for unit PT. There are no current plans by Marine leadership to do so, however. (David Guttenfelder/The Associated Press)
A history of reversals
During his tenure as commandant, Gen. Jim Amos has approved or enforced a few unpopular uniform regulations. He finally yielded to dissent. Changes of particular note: rolled sleeves, Raider name change for members of Marine Corps Special Operations Command, and KIA bracelets.
The KIA bracelet row arose after leaders across the globe carried out piecemeal enforcement against them. Some commanders punished Marines for wearing them, while others turned a blind eye, possibly because of KIA bracelets of their own.
While prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action bracelets have been approved for wear by the secretary of the Navy since 1972, KIA bracelets were not technically included. The dated SecNav message didn’t explicitly include a KIA provision so they were classified as unauthorized jewelry by the Marine Corps Uniform Board.
While POW/MIA bracelets were of little relevance to current generations of Marines, they wanted the right to similarly honor their fallen brothers in arms. Finally, Amos authorized KIA bracelets on Oct. 18, 2011, after he and Sgt. Maj. Mike Barrett, the Corps’ top enlisted leader, visited with members of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, at Twentynine Palms, California. The infantry unit lost five Marines during a rough seven-month deployment to Helmand province and several Marines at the homecoming were wearing bracelets to honor them.
Just hours after authorizing KIA bracelets, Marines across the fleet were robbed of one of their treasured traditions that many felt set them apart from other services such as the Army and let them show off their “guns” — rolled sleeves.
On Oct. 18, 2011, the commandant announced utility uniform sleeves would be worn down year-round. The policy change was supported by a Uniform Board vote that went against popular opinion with an official survey showing 61 percent of Marines wanted to keep their sleeves up in the summer. The reasoning? Sleeves protect Marines from bugs, heat and the sun, and wearing them down in garrison matches the way they’re worn downrange.
Over the next few years, Amos endured questions from Marines each time he toured the fleet. Amos eventually reversed the policy in February, admitting that even his wife appealed to him to allow rolled sleeves.
Raider patches for MARSOC operators are still technically not authorized. However, during an Aug. 6 MARSOC change of command ceremony in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina, Amos said all units within the command would undergo a name change: 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion would become 1st Marine Raider Battalion, and so forth.
The move is a significant reversal for Amos, who has been careful to maintain official distance between the 8-year-old legacy of MARSOC and that of the Raiders, who many say were the first U.S. special operations forces.
While the MARSOC units will adopt the Raider name, they will not be authorized to wear iconic Raider patches, although MARSOC operators have been spotted sporting the raider skull during deployments in Afghanistan.
The command expects motivated MARSOC operators will use the patch, but says MARSOC will still be required to follow uniform standards.
The service tightened its tattoo regulations in January 2010 with the release of Marine administrative message 029/10. The message was meant to codify the service’s policy to remove uneven enforcement of what’s considered appropriate. It also aimed to crack down on tattoos that limited Marines’ world-wide assignability, or detracted from a clean military appearance. Tattoos now explicitly banned include those that are:
■ Sexist, racist, eccentric or offensive in nature.
■ Express an association with conduct or substances prohibited by the Marine Corps drug policy and Uniform Code of Military Justice.
■ Vulgar or anti-American, bring possible discredit to the Marine Corps, or associate the Marine with extremist groups.
■ On the head or neck or in the mouth.
■ Band tattoos cannot be more than two-inches wide.
Also banned are sleeve tattoos, including half- and quarter-sleeve tattoos that are visible in the standard physical training uniform, unless Marines were grandfathered in under a 2007 policy change.
Additionally, individual tattoos visible in the PT uniform will be no larger than the wearer’s hand with fingers extended and together and the thumb touching the base of the index finger.
Officers, are limited to no more than four tattoos visible in the standard PT uniform. Also, while enlisted Marines with grandfathered sleeve tattoos can still climb the ranks, they cannot go mustang through any of the service’s commissioning programs, or become a warrant officer.
The Marine Corps recently released a survey asking Marines what they think about the Sam Browne belt, brass collar insignias for enlisted, and changes to the dates for sleeves up and sleeves down.
The answer that came from Marines was loud and clear — and not even related: Bring back silkies and overturn the tattoo policy.
The overwhelming response is not without precedent. The command has demonstrated a recent willingness to reconsider unpopular uniform regulations following widespread appeals from rank-and-file Marines.
Rolled sleeves reappeared this year after a two-year ban, and members of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command can finally call themselves Raiders — a proud reference to the first ever U.S. special operations troops.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Jim Amos approved those two changes amid continuing pressure from the fleet. Now more changes have appeared on the horizon as the Corps has issued two recent surveys seeking input from Marines. One asks about potential revisions to female hair regulations and the other about the three uniform changes.
But, none of the proposed changes address enduring hot-button issues near and dear to Marines past and present the world over – among them tattoos and silkies.
During his tenure, Amos has overturned or reversed course on several uniform regulations and grooming standards. Now, Marines want more concessions before he retires later this year.
Sky's out, thighs out
Silkies, called Ranger panties in other military communities, enjoy a cult following in the Marine Corps. There are a number of Marine Facebook pages that pay homage to the short shorts, popular T-shirts that read “sky’s out, thighs out,” and Terminal Lance comic strips dedicated to the now-banned PT gear.
Even the latest Marine Medal of Honor recipient Cpl. Kyle Carpenter is a fan. During an online Q-and-A session June 16, he took more than 30 questions from Marines, including one about silkies. He said he still wears his “on special occasions.”
Just about every Marine says that they wear them when they can. Those who swear by them say they prevent chafing, provide for good air flow and accentuate their physique. But some have an issue with silkies; the downfall of the shorts is that there just isn’t much of them to love. The 2.25-inch inseam doesn’t leave much to the imagination and what is left to the imagination becomes pretty clear during PT.
Their revealing nature led to a Corps-wide ban on the shorts for unit PT in 2011.
Lance Cpl. Charles Mueller with Company F, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, at Camp Pendleton, California, wants silkies to be allowed at unit PT because he says they look similar to the official workout shorts.
“You can’t see the differences, I don’t see why not. I think they should be an option,” he said.
He wears them whenever he trains from watercraft because they’re comfortable in all sorts of conditions and don’t chafe.
Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, California, Sgt. Maj. David Stocks said he likes the shorts, but they just aren’t proper attire in public.
“With current social norms, I don’t see silkies as appropriate to wear,” he said.
The shorts can be worn in a modest way, but many Marines wear a size that’s too small for their body and they look unprofessional. He said he suspects this bad trend would resume if silkies are ever brought back.
“It’s unflattering or unsightly,” he said.
Even before the service issued a Corps-wide policy, the tendency of some Marines to squeeze into silkies a few sizes too small led some installation commanders to issue their own base-specific bans.
Even so, Marines continue to call for their return.
During one online town hall held on Facebook in March, Amos and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett fielded questions on a host of issues.
Administrators of the “Silkies” Facebook page, which carries with it more than 38,000 fans, made a number of tongue-in-cheek comments prodding leadership to authorize the shorts again.
“Sir, thank you for the rolled sleeves. But our hearts lie in our silkies,” the page’s administrators wrote in one comment. “Well, not exactly, but you know what we mean.”
Their comments received no reply (of course).
When silkies were banned, Marine Corps Systems Command did not address the issue of modesty, saying only that silkies were out because they did not match the style of new PT shorts which were longer and similar to soccer shorts.
Even silkies detractors tip their hat to the breezy comfort. But that doesn’t mean they want a silkies comeback.
Sgt. Major Karyle Sisneros, the senior enlisted Marine at Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron at MCAS Camp Pendleton said that silkies are nice to wear compared to the currently authorized PT shorts, but the beloved garment doesn’t cover much, and some men don’t wear underwear or a jock strap when they exercise.
“I think they’re way more comfortable, but they’re too short,” he said.
Inking between the lines
Marines can still have tattoos, but stricter policies promulgated in 2010 set clear lines that, if crossed, can tank a Marine’s career.
The new policies further tightened tattoo policies already toughened in 2007 when sleeve tattoos were banned — a particularly sore spot for Marines who used sleeve tats to memorialize brothers-in-arms killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Christian Buster, assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, said that the tattoo standards should be relaxed, but that offensive images should still be barred.
“It shouldn’t be belligerent,” he said.
But, in some instances, tattoos can create bonds. For example, a Marine could have a full sleeve in tribute to fallen friends, or units can get matching tattoos, building cohesion, he said.
Fortunately, Marines who already had sleeves when the 2007 policy was passed were grandfathered under the new regs.
The 2010 changes primarily aimed at restricting tattoos still visible when in PT gear. Senior leaders said the reason was to ensure Marines maintained a clean military appearance and were worldwide deployable. Even Marines abiding by current regulations can be prohibited from assignments, however, including Marine security guard or recruiter due to forearm tattoos.
Leadership conceded that tattoos are an engrained part of naval, and thereby Marine, culture, but said the service required tighter policies in part because societal trends adopted much larger, and much more ostentatious ink.
In a 2011 interview with Marine Corps Times, then-new SMMC Barrett said tattoo policy had been worked on for a decade and then finalized by Amos. Thus, it would not be revisited.
“Let’s get rid of the myth that the leadership has something against tattoos. Because they don’t, Devil Dog,” he said at the time. “If they did, I wouldn’t be the 16th sergeant major of the Marine Corps because I have five tattoos. But every one of my tattoos is a Marine Corps tattoo. It ain’t this fancy artwork crap. It’s Marine Corps tattoos.”
A particular sticking point in current regs is that enlisted Marines with compliant tattoos may still limit their career options. Marines with a grandfathered sleeve, or an excessive number of tattoos, are barred from going mustang or even becoming a warrant officer.
On the Marine Corps Times Facebook page, opinions on tattoos were varied concerning support for the prohibition on neck or hand tattoos. But, most agreed that restrictions should be loosened to conventional tattoos on the arms and legs — even if visible.
The proposed change that effects the fewest Marines, but generated the most amount of debate are those to female hair regulations meant to address concerns of black women in uniform.
Officials were seeking input from Marines on whether or not to begin allowing “twists” or “dreadlocks” via an online survey which ran through Aug. 15.
The release of the survey follows a meeting of a Uniform Board working group. The group recommended the commandant allow twists, but not dreadlocks. They will, however, pair their recommendations with the survey results to inform his final decision.
The working group convened after a Defense Department mandate issued early this year that required all services to review their hairstyle regulations amid growing controversy over policies that black servicewomen say don’t account for their unique grooming needs. To fall within regulations, many say they either have to wear a wig, or spend a significant percentage of their paycheck to maintain their hair, which can include the use of harsh chemicals to straighten it.
The Marine Corps has already made changes to its female hair-grooming standards. Last year, the Uniform Board approved microbraids or “multiple braids,” a series of small, uniform braids about 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch in diameter, that show no more than 1/8 inch of scalp between each braid.
But, recent Army revisions to its hair regulations for women in March caused an uproar. Black female soldiers said the new standards were “racially biased.” The outcry resulted in a petition to the White House and eventually in moves by lawmakers to halt enforcement of the regulations.
Separately, a Navy corpsman was slated to be kicked out of the service for wearing an unauthorized hairstyle, but the Office of the Navy Secretary got involved and asked for more details to review the case. Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Jessica Sims, a sailor with an unblemished record, told Military Times that she didn’t think she should be told to straighten her hair in order to be “within what they think the regulations are.”
But, a significant number of Marine Corps Times readers were unsympathetic, saying on Facebook that military grooming standards should apply to everyone without exception. If you can’t or don’t want to abide by them, then maybe the Corps isn’t for you, several said.
A more radical, although oft-repeated suggestion, was for everybody, men and women alike, to be required to get a high and tight haircut.
“When black insignia intersects with black pixels in the woodland MARPAT utilities it can be difficult to discern rank,” reads the Marine news release announcing the survey on subdued rank, dates for the garrison uniform switch and mandatory wear of the Sam Browne belt.
Initial feedback on the Marine Corps Times Facebook page shows mixed feelings, particularly about the change to the color of rank insignia.
“You’d have boots saluting everyone that walked by,” wrote one reader voicing a common sentiment.
Another reader took a measured approach saying he would like to see black insignia on the desert MARPAT and gold on the woodland where it is most difficult to see.
While difficulty seeing insignia can create confusion for Marines of any rank, it can put junior Marines in a particularly uncomfortable situation when they have trouble discerning between a first sergeant and a sergeant major.
“Gold chevrons would make the lives of lance corporals everywhere so much easier ... However, it would also no longer allow us to make fun of [second lieutenants],” wrote Joshua Brooks in a hat tip to the term “butter bar.”
Others, however, feel that MARPAT is a tactical uniform, and brushed brass stands out too much.
The other two proposed changes — Sam Browne belts and the date for the switch to rolled sleeves — generated little interest from most Marines.
Currently, Marines switch to desert utilities with daylight savings in early March. Pushing that to April 1 would give the weather nearly an entire extra month to warm up first. While the move by the uniform board in 2011 to go sleeves down all year was wildly unpopular among most Marines who considered it an affront to the Corps’ identity, some reservists stationed in the northern states saw the change as relief from early spring cold when snow flurries were occasionally still falling.
Making the Sam Browne belt required for officers wearing dress blue alphas and bravos is the only purely aesthetic proposal. It is meant to emphasize the service’s history. In the Marine Corps, it harkens back to the 1920s, when officers still routinely wore swords as their personal weapon.
“The Sam Browne belt has been in the U.S. military uniform inventory since WWI,” said Mary Boyt, the program manager for the Permanent Marine Corps Uniform Board, in the release. “The belt is currently prescribed for optional wear by Marine Corps officers only.”
Regardless of calls from the fleet to take another look at silkies and tattoos, there are no plans to do so, according to a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon.
“Based on the CMC’s guidance and the needs of the Marine Corps, the Uniform Board can always revisit regulations that have been made. At this point though, those policies are not being revisited,” said Capt. Tyler Balzer, regarding tattoos and silkies.
That doesn’t bode well for those who miss that free feeling of calling cadence in silkies or those who want to drop $1,000 on the world’s most moto sleeve tattoo. But, of course, the board’s lack of intent doesn’t at all deter Marines from making their opinions heard.
Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.