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Army pushes back against ‘misinterpreted’ reports of lower standards for recruits with mental health history

U.S. Army recruits practice patrol tactics while marching during U.S. Army basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., Dec. 6, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller)
November 14, 2017

The U.S. Army is pushing back against reports that it has lowered standards for recruits, following an explosive USA Today report this week about the branch offering waivers for those with mental health histories.

It was reported that the Army is now offering waivers for recruits with a history of some mental health issues, self-mutilation, or drug and alcohol abuse in order to try and meet recruiting numbers. USA Today obtained documents about the unannounced policy that was enacted in August, it exclusively reported, which show that the Army is offering waivers for recruits with the aforementioned histories in some cases.

But the Army has not changed medical entrance standards, nor did it “lift any outright barriers to service,” it pointed out, according to a report in the Army Times, refuting what USA Today had reported.

“Recent reports that the Army has changed medical entrance standards for those with mental health issues are inaccurate,” wrote Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, deputy chief of staff for personnel, the Army Times reported. “The Army has made no such policy change and follows the accession standards prescribed by the Department of Defense.”

Seamands said a “simple, administrative change has been substantially misinterpreted,” the Army Times reported.

All waivers for any mental health histories that would bar someone from enlisting must still be approved; the change being that now, those waivers can be approved by U.S. Army Recruiting Command or the state’s adjutant general, where the National Guard is concerned – rather than the Department of the Army headquarters, the Army Times reported.

“It’s also important to note that the conditions themselves have been unfairly characterized,” Seamands said, the Army Times reported. “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. […] We’re not prepared to close the door on such individuals who are otherwise medically, mentally and physically qualified for military service. We think this is the right thing for our Army and the selfless young men and women who wish to serve.”

The waiver system allows the Army to examine individual recruits on a case-by-case basis.

“The decision to open Army recruiting to those with mental health conditions comes as the service faces the challenging goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers through September 2018,” USA Today had reported. “To meet last year’s goal of 69,000, the Army accepted more recruits who fared poorly on aptitude tests, increased the number of waivers granted for marijuana use and offered hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses.”

USA Today also reported:

Expanding the waivers for mental health is possible in part because the Army now has access to more medical information about each potential recruit, Lt. Col. Randy Taylor, an Army spokesman, said in a statement. The Army issued the ban on waivers in 2009 amid an epidemic of suicides among troops.

“The decision was primarily due to the increased availability of medical records and other data which is now more readily available,” Taylor’s statement to USA TODAY said. “These records allow Army officials to better document applicant medical histories.”

The Army did not respond to USA Today when asked how many waivers might have been issued.

USA Today also pointed out how the Army has started accepting “more marginally qualified recruits” in order to hit recruiting numbers.

USA Today reported:

The Army did not respond to a question of how many waivers, if any, have been issued since the policy was changed.

Data reported by USA TODAY in October show how the Army met its recruiting goals by accepting more marginally qualified recruits.

In fiscal year 2017, the active-duty Army recruited nearly 69,000 soldiers, and only 1.9% belonged to what is known as Category Four. That refers to troops who score in the lowest category on military aptitude tests. In 2016, 0.6% of Army recruits came from Category Four. The Pentagon mandates that the services accept no more than 4% of recruiting classes from Category Four. In addition, waivers for marijuana use, illegal while in uniform, jumped from 191 in 2016 to 506 in 2017. Eight states have legalized recreational use of marijuana.

Recruiting generally is more challenging for the services when the economy is strong. The Army has responded by offering more bonuses to those who sign up for service. In fiscal year 2017, it paid out $424 million in bonuses, up from $284 million in 2016. In 2014, that figure was only $8.2 million. Some recruits can qualify for a bonus of $40,000.

The Army’s decision to rescind the ban for a history of mental health problems is in part a reaction to its difficulties in recruiting, Ritchie said. [Elspeth Ritchie is a psychiatrist who retired from the Army as a colonel in 2010 and is an expert on waivers for military service.]

“You’re widening your pool of applicants,” she said.