The Crusades

An interesting event occurred at the MEPS (Military Entrance and Processing Station) earlier this week.  I’m the Chief Medical Officer there and that’s where I perform accession physicals for people who are interested in joining the military. First, here’s a little background:

Prior to shipping to basic training, I perform a quick exam called an “inspect”.  During this exam, I am required to check for new tattoos.  These need to be recorded in their medical charts as identifying marks.  If I see a tattooing which suggests an anti-social personality, a gang relationship, or any variety of psychiatric problems; I would assess and possibly refer to a psychiatrist for an evaluation.  For instance, I’ve seen a large abdominal tattoo saying “White Power”.  I’ve seen “Cop Killer” tattooed on the chest.  Tattooed tears coming down the cheek are often gang-related and may relate to the number of killings the person has committed.  I would consider all of these to be medically pertinent since they are likely to be associated with psychiatric problems.

Additionally, the different branches of service have rules and regulations about tattoos.  They decide if the tattooing appears unprofessional due to location, size, number or content.  For instance, tattooing visible in dress uniform might be administratively (not medically) disqualifying.  The services routinely demand that a naked female figure tattoo have remedial bra and panties tattoo overlays because it is considered offensive.  Bible verses, crosses, bleeding Jesus heads, and praying hands are all extremely common and are almost never a problem with the services. (Interestingly, Satanic symbol tattoos are a problem – but that’s a different story.)

A shipper came to the MEPS with a “sleeve” tattoo covering his entire left upper arm and shoulder.  It was new since the time of his initial physical at the MEPS.  I recorded and inspected it.  It was a graphic design of The Crusades!  It was complete with knights wearing uniforms with crosses and carrying shields with crosses.  They were slaying the infidels with their swords.  The tattoo montage showed the infidels’ bleeding stab wounds as they fell to the ground.  All in all, it was a horrific scene.  I interviewed the shipper.  He was a 19 year old Army recruit.  He thought the tattoo was “awesome” and “intense” and “cool”.  In my interview, I detected no evidence of a psychiatric disorder – I concluded that this was simply the not-very-surprising poor judgment of a teenager who did not recognize the implications of his new artwork.  In short, I did not think that he needed a medical disqualification or a medical waiver.  I did, however, ask for an administrative waiver so that he could be shipped to basic training with his new tattoo.  My reasoning was that this was a tattoo which was racially, ethnically, and religiously offensive; and that it would put the applicant at risk in a battle situation such as Iraq.  It would also put his company at risk since it was such a slur about a hot political issue.  Just imagine if “Al Jazeera” took a photo of that tattoo and put it on their website.  When I related this incident to my 20 year old daughter, she gasped and said, “Why didn’t he just tattoo a bull’s eye target on his forehead?”

The really interesting part of this event, however, was the complete and utter bewilderment by nearly everyone at the MEPS when I asked for a simple administrative waiver.  From the officers to the enlisted recruiters, almost no one could see “what the big deal was”.  No one thought it was offensive.  No one thought it was inflammatory.  No one saw the irony in OK’ing this Crusades tattoo while demanding the removal or revision of Satanic symbols, naked women and salty language ( “69”, “Love Machine”, etc.).  Well, the fuss continued for a while because the Army Liaison Office down the hall didn’t feel it was necessary to do the ½ hour of paperwork in order to obtain an administrative waiver.  They finally requested the waiver from their commanding officers.  This was all I wanted.  Not only did I want this tattoo reviewed, but I did not want to be personally responsible for clearing it.  The commanding officer left me a message, however.  He said to, “Tell the doctor that I don’t see any problems with it.”

What a strange world we live in!


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