Last year, the Army wound up with a scandal on its hands after USA Today reported on a memo from a military entrance processing doctor about granting waivers for recruits with a history of mental and behavioral health issues, including self-mutilation and drug use.

Senior leadership snapped to attention, first dismissing the memo as misguided and inaccurate, then reinforcing the Defense Department instruction that specifically bans accessions for prospective recruits with documented histories of those and other issues.

But Army Secretary Mark Esper, who was sworn in just weeks after the debacle, wants to make sure that experts are taking a holistic approach when evaluating a waiver for what might have otherwise barred a potential soldier from service.

“What the waivers do is give us the means to look at past historical incidents and weigh it out and look at the ‘whole person’ concept,“ he told reporters Friday. “Frankly, I have a problem with the word ‘waiver,’ because it leads us down the wrong path. … We should think about a different way to explain what we’re trying to do.”

The Army’s personnel chief responded to the memo in November by clarifying that it was mistakenly distributed, but adding that the service was beginning to have more of an open mind about recruits’ mental health history.

“It’s also important to note that the conditions themselves have been unfairly characterized,” Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army G-1, said in a statement at the time. “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.”

Esper said that on Thursday, following a spouse luncheon at Fort Bliss, Texas, a woman came up to him, concerned because years earlier she had sent her son to counseling when he was having trouble coping with his father’s long deployments.

“She’s concerned that this will be held against him when he tries to apply for a service academy or join the Army,’ Esper said. “The young man has had no behavior issues in the seven years since then.”

And in fact, it has been a concern for many military families. A spate of military children have been kicked out of initial military training after their childhood medical records were added to their service member records, sometimes revealing that they had turned to therapy as young children.

Esper wants to make sure that practice is ended, he said.

“We’re not going to hold that against him,” he said of the Fort Bliss boy, “because some young man or woman sought counseling when they were younger for one thing or another.”

Army Secretary Mark Esper said he wants the service to look at the
Army Secretary Mark Esper said he wants the service to look at the "whole person" when evaluating whether a recruit with past behavioral health issues should be allowed to serve. (Staff Sgt. Carl Greenwell/Army)

He extended that sentiment to past drug use, offering the example of a kid who tried marijuana once at an eighth grade party. Provided he chose to be honest with his recruiter about that, under current regulations, he could be barred from enlisting.

“You look at the whole person,” Esper said. “He’s not using marijuana, hasn’t in years. He or she is a 3.0 academic and a high school athlete — would I take that kid? Absolutely.”

Esper added that it would be even more important for the Army to do a case-by-case review now, as more states legalize marijuana.

“The waivers are really indicating to me that our recruiters are doing exactly what we’ve asked them to do,” Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey said Friday. “If they see something in the record that is of concern or is a question of meeting a DoD standard, they ask for somebody to review it.”

Following a directive released last summer, the Army decided to push those reviews down from the Army headquarters level to Army Recruiting Command.

As in the past, leaders stressed that this shift was not about lowering standards. To back that up, Esper announced that he had recently directed the Army to raise them.

DoD restricts the services to bringing in no more than 4 percent of its recruits from Category 4, meaning those who scored in the lowest third of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Test.

The new Army requirement is no more than 2 percent, he said.

Retention goes up, recruiting comes down

As the Army takes a second look at its waivers process, the recruiting mission is coming down overall.

The service went into fiscal year 2018 with its eye on an active Army end strength increase of 10,000 and an 80,000 recruiting goal. It has since dropped that down to 76,500 to keep up with end strength, Esper said.

The active component has a set end strength of 483,500 this year, with the final National Defense Authorization Act allowing a 7,500 increase in active troops, sending recruiting and retention goals into flux.

Retention is also up 5 percent from historic levels — from 81 percent to 86 percent — so the Army needs fewer new soldiers to balance its numbers.

”I think it’s too early to tell whether we’re having a concern or not,” Dailey said of meeting the final recruiting goal. “I have a really good indication that we’re going to continue to retain people at a historically high rate.”

The recruiting mission could drop again later into the summer, he added, if retention continues as it has.