Is Army’s Waiver for Mentally Ill Masking Deeper Recruiting Problems?

By Elaine Donnelly | November 16, 2017 | 10:06am EST

USA Today recently reported that certain psychological conditions and behavioral problems, such as depression, drug and alcohol abuse, bipolar disorder, and self-mutilation, would no longer disqualify recruits seeking to join the Army.  Pressures to induct 80,000 new soldiers, up from 69,000 last year, reportedly led the Army to change procedures last August. 

Damage control began immediately.  Deputy Personnel Chief  Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands claimed in a statement that conditions have been “unfairly characterized,” adding, “For example, a child who received behavioral counseling at age 10 would be forever banned from military service were it not for the ability to make a waiver request.”

The analogy was disingenuous, since recruiters rarely seek or obtain medical or misconduct records of minors, and depression, substance abuse, and self-mutilations occur most often in adults, not children.

Chief of Staff General Mark Milley and other Army leaders also denied that disqualification standards had changed.  They conceded, however, that waivers for the psychological conditions named would be approved at the lower Recruiting Command level, not the Secretary of the Army. 

But wait – the new protocol lowers the level of approval to the same Recruiting Command that must meet annual induction goals and quotas. 

Recruiters have a tough job that gets tougher during times of economic prosperity.  Sometimes waivers are obtained for applicants with low aptitude scores or a history of marijuana use in their youth.  Targeted bonuses also help to attract otherwise qualified recruits. 

But Army officials should not be approving waivers for people with serious mental illnesses, training them to serve in military units armed with guns.  It is dangerous to disregard psychological conditions that can trigger irrational violence or self-destruction. 

That lesson hit home when a man with a history of mental disorders and an Air Force bad-conduct discharge walked into a small-town Texas church, killing 26 innocent people.  Devin Kelley used guns he could purchase when the Air Force failed to report to authorities his record of violent domestic abuse. 

According to Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a retired Army colonel, psychiatrist, and expert on military service waivers, “people with a history of mental health problems are more likely to have those issues resurface than those who do not.”  Self-mutilation is a “red flag” signal of deeper problems that could be disruptive and dangerous in a war zone.

A retired general told me that colleagues who served in the early 70's know exactly what the outcome will be – they have experienced it.  Poor quality enlistees sour the non-commissioned and junior officers to the point that they lose faith in the Army, and other qualified enlistees lose respect that might have developed among their peers.  As a result, the best young enlisted personnel, their NCOs, and junior officers simply get out. 

Perhaps the Army’s controversial remedy for recruiting shortages could be masking a more serious problem: declining propensity to serve among qualified potential recruits.  If the Army cannot make its recruiting goals without inducting triple the number of “Category Four” recruits (1.9% in 2017, up from 0.6% in 2016), something is very wrong. 

Instead of allowing persons with mental or behavioral problems to obtain waivers at a lower level, new leadership in the Army should consider whether young people and their parents have become leery of excessive political correctness and social experiments in the military.

In 2012, the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) conducted a major survey asking thousands of Marines how rule changes making women eligible for the combat arms would affect their own decision to join or stay in the Corps.  Five percent of female Marine respondents said they would not have joined the Corps under such rules. 

When asked about orders to serve in the combat arms on an involuntary basis, which is the policy today, women’s negative responses jumped to 23 percent, almost one in four.  Twenty-two percent of male Marines expressed the same opinion. 

A 2014 poll of Army women showed that 92.5 percent wanted nothing to do with direct ground combat (infantry) assignments.  Former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ignored those findings and three years of empirical research confirming many reasons why women should not be treated like men in the combat arms. 

To make it work, Pentagon officials introduced “unconscious bias” training courses, which attack “masculinist” qualities considered to be “anti-women.”  Designers of these programs fail to understand that guys like to do “guy things,” and young males seeking to become men always have been attracted to the military for reasons different than women. 

Trendy attempts to purge “toxic masculinity” could make matters worse, since non-minority male recruits seem less valued these days.  In 2011, the Pentagon proclaimed that demographic “gender diversity metrics” and quotas are more important than non-discrimination.    

According to the Daily Caller, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain was outraged to read in newspapers about the Army’s change in waiver protocols.  Chairman McCain added, “Someone who self mutilates, I don’t understand the eligibility there.”

Chairman McCain did not object, however, when President Obama ordered military doctors and nurses to perform or approve body-altering surgeries and hormone treatments on military personnel suffering from another disqualifying psychological condition, called gender dysphoria.  

The Defense Department recently paid for sex-change surgery on an infantryman who began “transitioning” under Obama, even though surgical alterations do not change gender-determining human DNA or solve underlying psychological problems. 

Obama-era transgender training manuals order military women to accept biological males in their private facilities, and medical personnel must approve or participate in irreversible hormone treatments or surgeries, which many professionals consider unethical.  Other service members must take up the slack when transgender personnel undergoing psychological counseling and time off for “real life experience” as a person of the opposite sex are not deployable for months at a time.     

Are social experiments such as these negatively affecting recruiting and retention?  Before people with psychological conditions are inducted to fill the ranks, Pentagon officials should pull their heads out of the sand and start asking honest questions.   

Elaine Donnelly is President of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent public policy organization that reports on and analyzes military/social issues.  More information is available on CMR’s website,


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