WASHINGTON -- Off-duty male sailors will soon be allowed to wear a civilian decoration that some of their Army and Air Force counterparts already display proudly: an earring.
The Navy's top personnel officer, Vice Adm. Ronald J. Zlatoper, plans to distribute a fleet-wide message as early as Tuesday that will let enlisted men and male officers stick as many jewels and baubles in their earlobes as they wish -- but only while in civilian clothes during off-duty hours.
"We're a tradition-bound Navy, but look, if a guy wants to wear an earring at home or off base, it's only common sense to say he should be able to do it," said a Navy personnel official, who didn't want to identified.
This modest bow to fashion -- and nod to the swashbuckling traditions of pirates and Cossacks -- will bring the Navy into line with a liberal policy set exactly five years ago by the Army. The Air Force has never had an explicit rule against off-duty personnel wearing earrings.
What seemed to spur the latest change -- which has been in the works since November -- was an earful of "feedback" from male sailors complaining about the earring ban, the official said. "People were calling and saying, 'Hey, this is kind of a dumb rule.' "
Dubbed a "clarification" of current policy, a new Navy rule will prohibit men from wearing earrings while in uniform, when wearing civilian clothes on duty, or while at a naval facility or Navy function. It will replace a rule, buried in Navy uniform regulations, that caused conflicting interpretations over whether the earring ban really extended to civilian garb.
"Actually, if you went out to San Diego now, you'd see a lot of guys with earrings, and nothing is being done to them," Cmdr. Steve Clawson, spokesman for the Navy personnel bureau, said Friday.
"A certain percentage of youths who join the Navy already have pierced ears. The point is, let's be realistic," he said.
As for women, the military allows them to wear small studs or earrings when in uniform. While Marine Corps rules limit women's choices to small gold posts, the Army regulation says, with characteristic exactitude, that earrings "will be of gold, silver or white pearl; unadorned and spherical. When worn, earrings will fit snugly against the ear and will be worn as a matched pair with only one earring per earlobe. The band connecting non-pierced earrings may extend slightly below the earlobe."
As the Navy declares its tolerance for men with pierced ears, the Marines will remain the only military branch prohibiting earrings on men under any circumstance.
Many Marines relish recounting the scene in the movie "Heartbreak Ridge" in which tough-guy actor Clint Eastwood rips an earring off a young leatherneck, played by Mario Van Peebles.
At Camp Pendleton, Calif., last spring, one well-decorated Marine at a beach party drew considerable attention by wearing an earring in his nipple, according to the base newspaper. But his name stayed secret and he escaped any disciplinary action.