How to Get a Medical Waiver to Join the Military

US Army Medics helping Afghan Boy

I wish I had a crystal ball and one of those star-studded towels I could wrap around my head. That way I could charge a dollar to tell a person's future. Just answering my email and telling people whether or not their waiver request to join the U.S. Military was going to be approved would make me a fortune. I could stop writing and move to the Bahamas.

The truth of the matter is that nobody can tell you what your chances of waiver approval are.

Not me, not your recruiter, not your family doctor, not the nice old neighbor who retired as a colonel, not even the commanding officer of the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS). Why? Because there isn't any "go/no go" list of what will be approved and what will not be approved. Each and every waiver request is evaluated individually, using several individual factors. No two waivers are alike. In fact, I've seen waivers approved one week, only to see waiver requests for the exact same condition, in the same branch of the Military disapproved just a week later.

Waivers come in many sizes and flavors. There are medical waivers, moral (criminal history) waivers, reenlistment eligibility code waivers, age waivers, financial waivers, dependency waivers, education waivers, ASVAB score waivers, etc. Many of the questions I receive are from folks asking about medical waivers.

Medical Waivers

The Department of Defense (DOD) sets the overall medical standards for people wishing to join the U.S.

Military. These standards are the same for all the Military branches, including the Coast Guard. (The Department of Homeland Security has agreed to use the same standards to make MEPS processing easier. The only notable difference is that shell fish allergies is a non-waiverable condition for the Coast Guard.

Why? Heck, I don't know. I've never been able to figure that out out.)

The process starts when you complete the medical pre-screening form at the recruiter's office. The recruiter sends this up to MEPS when he/she asks for a medical examination appointment. Now, MEPS does not belong to any particular branch of service. It's what's known as a "Joint Command," and operates independently from all the service branches (even though it's administratively controlled by the Army....probably because the Army processes more new recruits each year than any other service branch).

The form is reviewed by a doctor at MEPS. If there are any potentially disqualifying medical conditions listed on the form, MEPS may contact the recruiter to ensure you bring a copy of your civilian medical records (concerning the condition) with you to the examination.

Sometimes the doctor doing the review will determine you have a medical condition which is obviously disqualifying with little or no chance of a waiver. In such cases, MEPS may disqualify you on the spot, and refuse to do the medical examination at all.

If this happens, you're pretty much dead in the water. There is no appeal to this. It's technically possible for the recruiting commander of the service you're trying to join to go around MEPS and request a medical waiver from their own medical command, but -- in the years I've been writing about joining the Military -- I've only seen this happen four times. In all three cases, the applicant walked on water (aced the ASVAB, college degree, called their Mothers regularly, etc.).

Once your medical examination is complete, you are determined to be either "medical qualified for military service," or "medically disqualified for military service," according to the medical standards set by DOD. There are two types of disqualifications: temporary and permanent. Don't get too wrapped up in these terms. "Permanent" doesn't necessarily mean you can't join the Military, and "Temporary" doesn't mean you need a waiver. Temporary means that you currently have a disqualifying medical condition, but that will change with time. An example would be a broken toe. You can't enlist with a broken toe, but once it heals (assuming there are no complications) the condition will no longer be disqualifying, and you'll be able to enlist without a waiver. Permanent means you have a disqualifying medical condition that isn't going to change with time, such as a history of depression. You can't enlist with a permanent medical disqualification, unless you receive an approved waiver.

If you are found to be permanently disqualified, the MEPS doctor will indicate on your medical form whether or not he/she recommends a waiver in your case. This is the very first step in the medical waiver process. When making the recommendation, the doctor will consider the following:

1. Is the condition progressive?

2. Is the condition subject to aggravation by military service?

3. Will the condition preclude satisfactory completion of prescribed training and subsequent military duty?

4. Will the condition constitute an undue hazard to the examine or to others, particularly under combat conditions?

    Once the doctor makes his/her recommendation, MEPS is completely out of the medical waiver process. The rest is up to the service you are trying to join.

    The medical records and the doctor's recommendation goes to the recruiting commander (or his/her designated representative) for the service you're applying to join. The commander/representative decides whether or not to request a medical waiver. In making this decision, the commander/representative considers the doctor's recommendation, along with two additional factors:

    1. Is the recruit *EXCEPTIONALLY* qualified, otherwise? (ASVAB scores, college credits, physical fitness, etc.)

    2. How are current recruiting goals? How bad does that particular branch of the service need your particular warm body at this particular point in time?

    If the commander decides to take a chance and ask for a waiver, where it goes from that point depends on the branch of the service you're joining (see the bottom of the medical standards page ). However, in a nut-shell, it winds its way across the desks of several military medical officials, each one reviewing it and recommending approval or disapproval, until it finally falls into the hands of a high-ranking doctor with birds or stars on his/her shoulders who makes the ultimate decision.

    If the Medical Waiver God disapproves the waiver, then that's the end of the road for any chance you have of joining that branch of service. There are no appeals to medical waiver disapproval (the waiver process *is* the appeal).

    Contacting Your Congress Person

    If your medical waiver is disapproved, your recruiter may tell you that your only appeal is to contact your Congressman. This is what some recruiters tell applicants, basically just to get the applicant off their backs. I have never once, not even a single time seen, or even heard of a congressional inquiry overturning a medical waiver denial. Under the law, and DOD regulations, the individual service has the absolute right to decide whether or approve or disapprove medical waivers, depending on the current "needs of the service." A Congressional inquiry won't change anything, in my honest opinion (and experience).

    Waiver approval/disapproval is only applicable for that particular branch of service. If your waiver is disapproved by the Navy, for example, you can walk across the hall to the Army recruiting office, and it's possible that the Army would give favorable consideration for a waiver. Conversely, if the Navy approves a medical waiver, you could not use that waiver to join the Army.

    I'm often asked questions such as "My waiver for xyz condition was disapproved, but I know of people on active duty that have the same condition. How come my waiver was disapproved?"

    Apples and oranges. As an applicant, the Military has very little time and money invested in you. They have lots of time and money already invested in that active duty member, however. If a medical condition is diagnosed after one is on active duty (assuming it's not a pre-existing condition that the member lied about, which is an entirely different story), the Military isn't going to discharge them unless a Medical Evaluation Board determines the member can't perform his/her duties.

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