Photo by Brett Jordan

Almost There

The Army announced this week that there would be an update to the service’s appearance and grooming regulations.

Most of the changes go into effect on Feb. 24 and include mundane updates such as the official implementation of the Expert Soldier Badge and a new name for the right sleeve shoulder patch — colloquially referred to as a “combat patch.”

It wasn’t these changes, though, that people were anxious to see. As part of former Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s initiative to address diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity in the military, the Army convened a board to recommend improvements to appearance standards to address the experience of women and people of color.

The 17-member board received input from surveys and received medical advice from dermatologists and a psychologist. It then voted on recommendations and passed those along to the Army for approval. According to Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, the Army approved every proposal.

The approved changes received a mixed response. While the Army made positive strides, such as permitting the wear of earrings in the Army Combat Uniform, removing offensive language from regulations, and allowing for short ponytails, it didn’t go all the way by permitting women to wear their hair down at all times.

The substance of the changes wasn’t the only thing that didn’t sit well with people.

The public messaging also missed the mark in some ways. To announce the update, Grinston hosted a televised town hall that more than 20,000 people viewed live.

The first issue with the town hall was that it was overhyped. The night before the event, Grinston tweeted that it was “Like Christmas Eve, but instead of gifts it’s common-sense policies that impact the health and wellness of ALL our Soldiers.” A nice sentiment, but the changes announced by the leaders onstage stopped well short of revolutionary. They were cautiously evolutionary.

Next, the three-member panel — the hand-picked group that would announce changes focused on women — included Grinston and two male sergeants major. A classic “manel.”

Additionally, the language used throughout the panel was less than inclusive. Panelists (manelists?) repeatedly referred to women as “females,” and one of the panelists suggested a change to the hair dye regulation would allow women to “jazz it up a bit.”

When discussing why certain changes weren’t approved, particularly letting women wear their hair down at all times, panelists said they wanted to maintain professionalism.

As if requiring women to wear a bun most of the time — causing frequent headaches in the short run and traction alopecia in the long run — is somehow the panacea of unprofessional behavior.

However, what irked some the most was the makeup of the board that recommended the changes. Of the 17 voting members, 15 were women. However, there wasn’t a single junior enlisted woman included in the group.

Twitter user terminalyill3st, a soldier in the National Guard, shared her frustration with the lack of enlisted representation.

“We’re ‘almost’ toward inclusion but yet decisions continue to be made on our behalf without adequate representation from junior enlisted. I can think of one program specifically where the lack of our representation has led us down a terrible path. I am tired of the pattern, SMA,” she tweeted.

So what’s the big deal? So what if soldiers don’t get to present themselves in a way that’s natural and comfortable? Our job is to fight and win the nation’s wars, right?

It matters a lot.

I recently saw a woman pose a question: as a man in the Army, would you feel comfortable wearing drag for a full year? For your entire career? Would that affect your psyche?

It would? Now, please meet every woman you’ve ever served with.

Women — who comprise about 15% of the Army — are a fundamental component of our countries’ readiness for war. If they don’t feel welcome, included, and appreciated, they will continue to fight a separate battle. A battle many of their male counterparts often don’t know exists.

The new updates strike me as the smallest amount of change you can make to justify calling it a step forward without addressing the underlying issue — women in our ranks do not feel like they can be themselves without being told they’re unprofessional.

But Grinston understands this fight is not over, and I believe he is committed to getting this right — even if it takes longer than it should.

More than anything, he understands the importance of inclusive policies. “Our goal was to create a Standard that everyone could see themselves in,” he said.

That’s a worthy goal and one I’ll continue to support.

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The views expressed are those of Brennan Randel and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any government agency.

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