- Legislators say the Army did not notify them of a plan to offer waivers for some mental-health conditions.
- Sen. John McCain has said he could slow down the confirmation process if the Pentagon isn’t more forthcoming with information.
- The Army has said the change is only a minor administrative change.
Sen. John McCain said Tuesday that the Senate Armed Services Committee could delay President Donald Trump’s nominees for defense positions because of dissatisfaction with the Army’s announcement of a plan to offer waivers for recruits with histories of some mental-health conditions.
USA Today reported this week that the Army lifted a ban on mental-health waivers this summer and will allow people with histories of self-mutilation, bipolar disorder, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse to request them.
At a confirmation hearing for three nominees on Tuesday, McCain expressed frustration about how the policy change was revealed, saying he had learned of it from the USA Today story.
“It’s a problem we’ve been having with this administration,” McCain said, according to Military Times. “We should have been told about this before it showed up in a USA Today article. The Army did not respond to a question of how many waivers, if any, have been issued since the policy was changed.”
McCain – who has held up the nomination process several times this year – said it seemed to him the only way to get the Pentagon to provide information was to force defense officials to testify in open hearings or stop confirming nominees.
Other committee members asked the Army for more information about the effects of the change. “We cannot sacrifice quantity for quality. It’s that simple,” said the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed.
An Army spokesman told USA Today that the accessibility of more medical information allows “Army officials to better document applicant medical histories.” New information enabled the Army to evaluate the “whole person” when considering a waiver, the spokesman said.
Since the USA Today story was published, Army officials have pushed back on the idea they are relaxing their standards for recruits.
The Army’s personnel chief, Lt. Gen. Thomas C. Seamands, said the force had only lowered the level at which waivers for potential recruits were approved, from Army headquarters to Army Recruiting Command or to state adjutants general for National Guard recruits.
“Just because they say they are opening it up doesn’t mean they will let anyone in,” an Army recruiter told Task & Purpose. The recruiter said the new policy was of a piece with an effort to give let recruiting commanders make more decisions about prospects.
Both Seamands and the recruiter described how past experiences – behavioral counseling and injuries from construction work, respectively – could still lead the Army to disqualify an applicant from military service.
“We’re not prepared to close the door on such individuals who are otherwise medically, mentally and physically qualified for military service,” Seamands said.
The Army recruiter also told Task & Purpose the policy may be intended to make waivers more accessible to the highest-rated recruits, allowing the force to bring in more of them before drawing on lower-rated prospects.
“My boss told me that they only want us to focus on the alphas,” the recruiter said. The Army’s recruiting command “is saying that if you’re going to miss the mission, we want you to miss the mission because you didn’t enlist any bravos.”
- U.S. Army / Sadie Bleistein
Two Army recruiting officials told Stars and Stripes that waivers were generally hard to get and that they had not been told to look for lower-quality recruits.
“We’ve been told we want the best candidates,” one of the officials said. “The command wants quality recruits coming in the Army. They’ve made that very clear, but sometimes to get even those high quality of recruits you need waivers.”
Experts have warned that allowing recruits with such mental-health conditions, self-mutilation in particular, could open the Army up to problems in the future. Such conditions can reoccur or be signs of additional problems, and they could emerge during combat or affect unit cohesion, and it would likely be an expensive, protracted process to deal with personnel affected.
“Self-mutilation is something that comes home to roost. I don’t quite understand the eligibility there,” McCain said on Tuesday, according to Stars and Stripes. “I hope we can get answers to questions. I’m just not sure that if you take someone in who is doing this things – the cost over time is very, very, very high.”
Congress has confirmed 17 defense officials this year. The Senate Armed Services Committee has held confirmation hearings for 15 nominees this month, and 11 of Trump’s civilian Defense Department nominees have passed the committee and await a vote by the full Senate.