The U.S. Army is lifting an ban on recruits with a history of mental illness as a means of boosting recruiting numbers, a unilateral decision that could damage readiness and actually hurt the effort to recruit quality young Americans into serving their country in uniform.
The Army made the decision in August, but is only making it public now as it fears efforts to recruit 80,000 new soldiers by September 2018 may fall short. Americans who deal with bipolar disorder, depression, self-mutilation or drug and alcohol abuse are not eligible to be recruited although the Army insists it will screen such applicants vigorously to ensure they are fit for service.
That’s not good enough for Center for Military Readiness President Elaine Donnelly.
“This is not a good sign,” said Donnelly. “At least one expert quoted in the USA Today story said that when you induct people who have psychological problems, it is definitely a red flag. Those psychological problems often get worse in the military. Rates of suicide in the military are much higher than in the civilian world.”
She says one of the recruiting headaches is that a growing number of young people are not physically fit for the military, but she says that shouldn’t trigger a sliding standard on mental health.
“Issues of mental competency also are important. Mental conditions that detract from readiness to deploy, that interfere with unit cohesion, that contribute to stress and controversy within a given unit, these issues also are important,” said Donnelly.
She it’s not the first time the military has gone down this road.
“We have pressures to include transgenders in our military. Gender dysphoria is one of those mental conditions that render a person unqualified for military service. It’s one of many. Now we see the list being edited to include some mental conditions in the same way,” said Donnelly.
Donnelly says the policy decision makes life more difficult for others in the military, starting with the recruiters, who may soon be urged to accept applicants that ought to be rejected.
“I think the pressure will be on to meet the quotas,” said Donnelly.
She also says problem cases who slip through recruiting and training have and could again become major headaches for battlefield commanders.
An in an ironic twist, Donnelly says the effort to relax standards may actually hurt recruiting of the people the military want and need to sign up.
“The military is a very special institution. It requires special young people to join. If you start playing games with standards and making excuses for including people who are not suited for military service, that’s only going to make the problem worse,” said Donnelly.
“We have to be very careful. Not everybody is eligible to serve in the Armed Forces. And if you pretend like it is an equal opportunity employer, then you put everybody’s lives at greater risk,” said Donnelly.
So why is the Trump administration allowing this? In short, it may not have much of a say at all. Donnelly says the Army can change the policy without any input from Congress. Furthermore, she says President Trump’s people still aren’t on the job.
“It was only last week the new Secretary of the Army was confirmed. So this was a decision made by people from the Obama administration, not the Trump administration,” she said.
“The person in charge of personnel matters in the Department of Defense hasn’t even been confirmed yet, the Trump appointee. So this may be an open issue that may be revisited and I hope it will be,” said Donnelly.