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Army Lowers Recruiting Standards To Allow Soldiers With History Of Self-Mutilation, Bipolar Disorder

Since the beginning of the year, much ink has been spilled about the Army’s increasingly desperate attempts to fill its lofty recruiting quota for fiscal year 2017-2018: That is, 80,000 new soldiers. To hit that number, the Army has repeatedly loosened its recruiting requirements. Last month, the military introduced a new policy that would forgive recruits with a history of marijuana use or certain marijuana related criminal violations...

...and now, the military is taking those efforts one step further, with USA Today reporting today that the Army has expanded its criteria for granting “waivers” to certain recruits who violate criteria related to mental-health violations like having a history of bipolar disorder, or self-mutilation. The military said this expansion is justified by the increasing availability of medical records allowing recruiters to analyze a potential recruit’s history in greater detail to make a more accurate assessment as to whether they’re fit to serve.

Here’s USA Today:

WASHINGTON – People with a history of “self-mutilation,” bipolar disorder, depression and drug and alcohol abuse can now seek waivers to join the Army under an unannounced policy enacted in August, according to documents obtained by USA TODAY.

 

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. 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.

 

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.

While it's unclear how long this decision was under consideration, last year, Jeff Snow, the army major-general who is in charge of the branch’s recruiting program, revealed to AZCentral that only 3 in 10 individuals applying to join the Army actually meet the branch’s “rigorous” recruiting requirements. "The biggest challenge right now is the fact that only three in 10 can actually meet the requirements to actually join the military," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, commanding general of United States Army Recruiting Command. "We talk about it in terms of the cognitive, the physical and the moral requirements to join the military, and it's tough. We have a very good Army; there's a desire to recruit quality into the Army."

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. 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.

However, despite the Army's claims that it now possesses the tool's to conduct more advanced screenings of individual candidates, one expert on military waivers pointed out, no amount of precise data about recruits’ health history can definitively prevent those issue from resurfacing later. Self-mutilation is a particularly disruptive issue because it could set off alarms about potential suicide attempts or other similarly disruptive phenomenon.

But accepting recruits with those mental health conditions in their past carries risks, according to Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist who retired from the Army as a colonel in 2010 and is an expert on waivers for military service. People with a history of mental health problems are more likely to have those issues resurface than those who do not, she said.

 

“It is a red flag,” she said. “The question is, how much of a red flag is it?

 

While bipolar disorder can be kept under control with medication, self-mutilation — where people slashing their skin with sharp instruments — may signal deeper mental health issues, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association.

 

If self-mutilation occurs in a military setting, Ritchie said, it could be disruptive for a unit. A soldier slashing his or her own skin could result in blood on the floor, the assumption of a suicide attempt and the potential need for medical evacuation from a war zone or other austere place.

In the past, recruits who received waivers have been responsible for some of the most embarrassing (and extremely heinous) incidents in recent army history. As USA Today pointed out, in 2006, an Iraqi girl was raped and her family killed by US soldiers, one of whom required waivers for minor criminal activity and poor educational background.

Still, new guidelines for screening potential recruits with histories that include self-mutilation make clear that the applicant must provide “appropriate documentation” to obtain the waiver, according to a September memo sent to Army commanders. Those requirements include a detailed statement from the applicant, medical records, evidence from an employer if the injury was job-related, photos submitted by the recruiter and a psychiatric evaluation and “clearance."

Slides for military officials who screen recruits show examples of people whose arms, legs and torsos have been scarred by self-mutilation.

"For all waivers," one memo states, "the burden of proof is on the applicant to provide a clear and meritorious case for why a waiver should be considered."

A spokeswoman for the military rigorously defended the new waiver protocol, arguing that, under the right circumstances, a waiver for self-mutilation could be justified.

“I can see a rationale that that shouldn’t be an absolute but could be a waiver,” she said.

Of course, given the escalating tension between the US and North Korea - and more recently the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and its chief geopolitical rival, Iran - the possibility that the US could engage in yet another armed conflict before the end of Trump's first term is looming over the Pentagon, not to mention the general public. Furthermore, Trump's decision to send another 4,000 military personnel to Afghanistan, not to mention the US's decision to send a contingent of military "advisers" to help combat terror networks in Northern and East Africa, means that the US's military entanglements have only continued to expand under Trump, despite his repeated promises during the campaign to adhere to an "America first" policy of nonintervention.

As these conflicts worsen, we doubt this will be the last time the military lowers its recruiting standards before Trump's first term is up.