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Uncle Sam Wants You! (Maybe)

Can you join the military with ADHD? The policy regarding enlistment has changed. Learn about the newly revised standards.

Can you join the military with ADHD?
Uncle Sam poster recruiting for US army on american flag

Can You Join the Military with ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most restricted health categories when it comes to enlisting for service in the United States military. While ADHD alone does not disqualify a person from military service, the Department of Defense (DOD) places significant enlistment restrictions on individuals with an ADHD diagnosis and/or prior treatment with medication.

According to the DOD’s medical standards for enlistment, last updated in 2018, ADHD is considered a disqualifying condition if an applicant:

  • Was prescribed medication to treat ADHD in the last two years
  • Was recommended or prescribed an IEP or 504 Plan, or work accommodations after age 14
  • Has a history of comorbid mental disorders
  • Has documentation of adverse academic, occupational, or work performance.

Individuals with ADHD need a medical waiver to be able to enlist if they meet these points, with the branches — Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air Force — typically requiring that applicants be off medication for several months and prove that they can function without it to be considered for a waiver. Each branch, however, seemingly has different standards that applicants have to meet before being able to apply or qualify for a waiver.

The DOD’s stipulations have changed over the years. In 2004, applicants with ADHD could enlist after demonstrating passing academic performance and no use of medication in the last year. In 2010, the criteria changed, more closely resembling today’s guidelines for people with ADHD. The DOD could have also rejected applicants at that time for the following reasons:

  • if they had taken more than a single daily dosage of medication for more than two years after age 14
  • if they were unable to maintain a least a 2.0 GPA without accommodations
  • if a medical professional stated that medication was required for acceptable occupational or work performance

[Get This Download: 8 Dream Jobs for Adults with ADHD]

Why ADHD Restrictions for Military Service Are Unfair

As a clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience working with individuals with ADHD, I say that the military’s policies effectively cut off a population of talented, capable, and intelligent people from a tremendously valuable career path.

Military service is often an excellent option for people with ADHD, many of whom do well in highly structured environments and thrive on activity, which military service delivers in spades.

The problem with the military’s guidelines is that they label and discourage a population of people at the outset. Each branch’s waiver customs may well allow for consideration of the person. But as written, the military is arbitrarily enforcing a blanket policy on people with ADHD.

One of the misconceptions about ADHD, for instance, is that these individuals cannot pay attention, and therefore are unfit for certain positions and situations. But this is not the case – ADHD biology includes the ability to hyperfocus intensely when the person finds something interesting — with or without medication. Depending on the person, the job, the interest level, and how talented they are for the kind of work, a person with ADHD can do extremely well in many jobs in the military.

Not all people with ADHD, furthermore, take or need medication. And just because a person took medication some time ago doesn’t mean they will need it currently or in the future. Some may take medication only at certain points or settings in their lives, like at school or if they change jobs. Others go decades without taking medication, until they’re in a situation where they decide they need it.

Also unreasonable is the length of time some branches require applicants to be off medication before applying for a medical waiver. The Air Force, for instance, recommends that applicants be off medication for 15 months. Other branches, as the DOD’s prior policies stated, may insist on two years. Whatever the timespan, there is no clinical basis for it, as it only takes about a week for stimulants to be fully flushed out of your system after stopping treatment.

As for IEPs — what difference should it make if a student had an IEP after age 14? Many people need assistance with organization, structure, accountability, and more throughout high school. This has no bearing on how organized or responsible they may be at 20.

ADHD Medication Rules Are Unreasonable

The military should relax its enlistment standards, but much more needs to be done beyond that, including reforming overly restrictive (and counterproductive) policies regarding ADHD medication. While few cases are known of people with ADHD who are able to take medication while serving, for the most part, an applicant with ADHD is not able to take medication immediately prior to enlisting and while on active duty.

Realistically, and perhaps in alignment with the military’s reasoning — if a person with ADHD cannot function well and be productive without medication, then they are probably not a good fit for the military. You don’t want to be in a combat environment, for example, and run out of medication.

But an individual with ADHD who is being treated with medication is not necessarily “too ADHD” to be an effective soldier. Again, it all depends on the individual. A good argument can be made that taking the appropriate medication will make a soldier who is already capable into one who is even more capable.

The main benefits of drug therapy for adults with ADHD are significant improvements in attention, concentration, and mental alertness, along with a significant decrease in physical restlessness and impulsivity. Common results from taking the proper ADHD medication are significant increases in efficiency and productivity.

There is no logical reason to suppose that ADHD treatment methods (including medication) that are effective in the civilian population would be less effective among the military population. The bottom line is that, for many people with ADHD, taking medication improves performance. This is likely true whether the task at hand is peeling potatoes, filing records, or driving a tank. This is not to say that, without medication, that individual is incapable of peeling potatoes, filing records, or driving a tank. The point is that medication helps people with ADHD do these and other tasks with greater efficiency. What’s not to like?

In light of these realities, it’s time for the DOD to reconsider its restrictive policies regarding ADHD. I want to see people treated as individuals, and given opportunities to show what they can do as individuals. Failing to do so will only demoralize and continue to deny an important career option to many young Americans — and make life needlessly difficult for the brave and dedicated people with ADHD who already serve in our armed forces.

[Read This Next: Coping With the Stigma of ADHD]

21 Comments & Reviews

  1. I really liked the article and agree with nearly every sentiment expressed, BUT.. I have to respectfully disagree with you on one thing – and it’s this:
    [“ADHD medications are not habit-forming, so there is virtually no risk that a discontinuation of medication would trigger withdrawal symptoms that could lead to impaired functioning.”]

    I’m 30 years old, and I’ve taken ADHD medication since I was 17 years old.
    When I was 20, I (temporarily) decided to stop taking my medication as I wasn’t sure at the time if my medication was a real benefit to me or not – I had never been without them as an adult and questioned whether or not my ADHD wasn’t simply teenage hormones and immaturity.
    I can say firsthand – the discontinuation of my medication DID trigger WITHDRAWAL symptoms! And pretty significant ones at that.. I was in like a 48 hour “coma” the entire weekend, forcing myself up for work that Monday took every fiber of my being.

    At work I was drag ass, totally out of it and just wanted to go back to bed, which I did the moment I got home til the next morning. Over the course of the week I slowly felt the fog lift as each night I went home a little less drained.

    By the weekend I was able to return to a normal sleep/wake cycle. However, my energy level, motivation, and attention were 50% of what they were on my medication. I was determined to see it through though and I expected a long road back to “normalcy” without medication.
    Over the course of a little over a year – my energy level, motivation, and attention slowly increased to about 75% of what they were on medication but had plateaued for 3 months or so.
    It was then that it hit me: NOW I REMEMBER.. *this* is the brain I had had my entire life and why I sought treatment in the first place!

    I knew then that my cognition was at its peak WITHOUT medication, and that it was unacceptable for who I wanted to be in life.
    I knew I truly did NEED my medication, I had my answer and accepted it.
    I immediately made a doctors appointment so I could continue taking my medication once again (and explained why I randomly stopped filling it for the past year plus!).
    Since then, I’ve been taking it for over a decade now and I can say with 100% certainty I am so glad I did. The night/day improvements in my energy, motivation, and attention I’ve continued to have on my medication are invaluable to me in my life.
    I know for a fact I would never have been able to get where I am and where I’m going had I remained unmedicated from 20 years old on. And it actually scares me even to think of where I’d be now and how much unfulfilled potential I would have wasted on my life without medication.

    ** WITH ALL THAT SAID.. **

    I 100%, without a doubt, KNOW my medication:

    I accept this and closely monitor any changes I experience and now actively consult with doctor if any arise.
    I feel being honest about the risks of taking ADHD medication with myself is what has allowed it to be so beneficial in my treatment.

    Everyone should know the risks and take them seriously and continue to do so diligently throughout their life while taking a medication.

    I felt this one part of your article about ADHD medication not being habit forming or causing withdrawals is completely wrong and an unsafe misconception to put in the minds of those just seeking treatment and their options.

    Thank you for your time and keep up the great work otherwise.
    God Bless!

    1. I must respectfully disagree with your statement. I am not trying to disprove you in any way or reduce your personal experiences to being false, however I think it’s important to differentiate your anecdotal evidence from current academic literature regarding the research of these medications. As a personal anecdote, I have been prescribed ADD medications from 16 until my current age of 26. Through this time I have taken three different medications, all of which had negative side effects which have deterred my usage of them. While I know and have appreciated their effectiveness in helping my performance in academia, I have also come to loath their impact on my social/personal life. For this reason I have restricted my usage of these medications to only when they are necessary, in fact I actually prefer not to take them unless I know my temporary performance outweighs my overall quality of life. During these ‘off’ periods I never notice any withdrawal symptoms or a desire to take them, on the contrary I actually enjoy not being on them far more.

      Now again I must stress that I have no doubt your experiences are true but I do not think they reflect the consensus of those taking the medications or the current research. I have reviewed many articles on these substances and whether these medications are addictive or impose withdrawal symptoms is inconclusive at best.

      The reason I am writing this is because I recently attempted to join an branch of the military to contribute my skills as a doctor of physical therapy. Despite graduating with honors and being in good physical condition, I was swiftly disqualified due to my ADD medication. I find this to be an inappropriate and antiquated. Personally I know that I have more than enough ability to serve and contribute to my country both on and off this medication. Regardless, I am unable to qualify until I am off the medication for 12 months. Unfortunately had I known this fact I would have stopped a long time ago, but I still do not agree with this policy. I feel many people with ADD can relate to my experience, and should not be regarded as incapable of serving simply because of these medications. I know that I would be ready to meet all requirements of the military even 24 hours after my last dose, but having to wait 12 months is simply overkill.

      1. Hi, I’m currently looking to join the military and have had similar experiences. I’m heavily researching protections for people with ADHD under the Americans with Disabilities Act with regards to joining the military. I would love the opportunity to speak with you about your experience. Is there any chance I can email you or we can speak on the phone?

      2. I can’t definitely relate to this post. I’m am currently trying to join. I was diagnosed as a child. I would love to talk and get more information.

      3. I too have had a very similar experience when I tried to join the military recently. I would very much like the opportunity to speak with you about your experience as well! Is there any chance we can speak over the phone or get in contact through email?

        The only difference between our experiences so far as I am aware at this moment is that I was told that I could not join until I had evidence that I had been off the medication for an entire 24 months!!! Not just the 12 months that you described!

      4. What medical literature are you reading that stimulants prescribed in ADHD treatment, such as amphetamines, are “non-habit forming”??? Amphetamines are well known to be some of the MOST addictive drugs on the planet, and are very prone to abuse. They are in fact known for being abused.. go to any college campus. There are kids nowadays that will crush and snort adderall for a high at parties. There’s a reason it’s a Schedule II Controlled Substance! By definition, it has a high potential for abuse and physical/psychological dependence. The whole theory around ADHD meds is to stimulate dopamine release to “compensate” for lower levels in those with the condition. Dopamine is literally your body’s reward system… drugs that stimulate your reward system.. they’re addictive! Few drugs do that as effectively as amphetamines.

  2. I am very ADHD and thrived in the Structure of the Military environment. I was undiagnosed at the time but sought out the Marine Corps because I had no focus and no goals. It was the best decision of my life. I thrived with the structure. My energy and intensity were welcomed and supported. I struggled with attention most times in training, which could have been avoided if I knew why I struggled. But I became and expert marksman when focused on a single target. And my heightened focus and instincts in the high adrenaline combat environment was a unique ability that earned a combat promotion to Sargent. ADHD should be sought out by the military in my opinion. With the right guidance it would create unique highly effective combatant. It is far from a disability.

  3. Wow. For a magazine that is supposed to know so much about ADD/ADHD the writer of this article does not seem to really understand how limiting it can be for some in many situations. Three author certainly doesn’t understand what the military is for. This is not just some ordinary job. Other people’s lives are on the line, not just incorrectly filed paperwork if someone is not functioning up to par. Here is the comment that shows the lack of understanding:
    “The truth is that, when drug therapy is interrupted, people with ADHD don’t stop functioning. They simply revert to pre-medication levels of efficiency.”
    Yes, they revert to premedication levels of efficiency. THAT,is the problem! Do you want someone in battle beside you that ran out of medication and they are supposed to be watching your back, now they are highly distractable and may miss the what the enemy is doing or maybe they missed seeing an explosive device in front of themselves or someone beside them. Perhaps they are an aircraft mechanic and now they can’t focus and forget to tighten out put back a nut or bolt or other piece of equipment. The aircraft takes off and malfunctions possibly causing the craft to crash.
    If someone’s premedication efficiency were was not a problem, they would not the medication in the first place. If their premedication efficiency is deficient enough that it effects their job performance than in the military that is a liability.
    People need to think things through rather than jumping to the conclusion that everyone a group of people is excluded it’s discrimination. It’s not discrimination, it’s looking at the big picture. If it were discrimination they would not allow them to serve at all. EVERYONE has to perform at the same capacity regardless of their label or diagnosis for the sake of safety!
    My son has ADD and hid dream since 1st grade was to serve his country. We knew that he would not be able to follow his dream if he stayed on medication. So after 7th grade we stopped his medication. He was also suffering side effects from the medication. We homeschooled after that as well. Medication is not always the only answer.
    He is now in the military following his dream that public schools and medication would have prevented him from.

  4. I’m sure a large percentage of those in the military have undiagnosed ADHD. They probably don’t do very well academically and seek the military as an alternative to college. The structure of the military as well as the activity would be beneficial for most individuals with ADHD.

  5. @mickylynn there are plenty of jobs in the military that don’t include battle. Ex Paving roads on base,secretarial duties, chefs, kitchen duties. Give them jobs that don’t include battle but don’t exclude them. It’s discrimination and there military needs to change their ways.

  6. @mickylynn and @Sinara2010…I must disagree with both of you, but for vastly different reasons. Being a disabled veteran with ADHD and having served multiple deployments, I feel like I am qualified to voice a somewhat informed opinion on this subject. As a teenager, I had many of the telltale signs of someone with ADHD, but it was also something that I was able to essentially manage without medication. Mickylynn, I was a helicopter weapons and avionics systems technician in the Army, and I was dang good at my job. I must acknowledge the fact that you did state “premedication efficiency” and I must also acknowledge that you are correct that if a potential service member suffers from an acute case of ADHD, essential maintenance tasks may be missed or performed incorrectly, which could very well spell disaster. That said, to exclude any and all that are diagnosed with ADHD is ludicrous. @Sinara2010, while I agree that the military needs to rethink their exclusion for any and all diagnosed with ADHD, limiting them to cooks, secretarial duties, or “paving roads” is kind of insulting. Those jobs, while important to the overall success of the military, also (and no offense intended to anyone) are menial and/or careers that do not overly tax a person’s intellect. Many diagnosed with ADHD are highly intelligent and would find the day to day tasks performed during those jobs to be dull to say the least. The Army has over 200 M.O.S.’s (career paths) and many of those would be great fits for those with ADHD. I found the military such a good fit for many reasons, but due to an injury suffered while deployed in Iraq, and then having a second injury occur whilst training in a field exercise I was medically retired. The VA performed another full evaluation and this time my ADHD was properly diagnosed and I was given the proper medication. Now with my medication, I find that I would perform those same maintenance tasks even better! I am still in the field of aviation and not only do I find it extremely rewarding, but the career salary and benefits are pretty great too! I would never have been able to get into this field in the first place if it were not for the military and it saddens me that the military still has this antiquated stance. So again, while I disagree with both of you, you both also make some valid points. My son, who is not only very intelligent and straight A student, has also been diagnosed with ADHD (big surprise right?) but is currently medicated. He has always loved the Aerospace/Aeronautics field and I would love for him to be able to have the same options available for him.

  7. @kristimoore100 absolutely. I am a veteran. I joined the military before I knew I had ADHD. I simply thought I was as smart as others or that I just wasnt as capable as other people. I did great in school until high school my grades became mediocre especially in the classes I had no interest in. I skated through high school with a 3.0 gpa sleeping through most of my classes. I only paid any attention in science and my health science technology class. I am ever thankful for my health science technology course because without it I would have never discovered my desire to care for people(I’m an introvert). When graduation came I knew I wanted to become a nurse but I knew I didn’t have financial means for college, I also knew I didn’t have the grades or resume for scholarships! I refused to go into debt for school, especially if I wasn’t sure I would do well in school so I joined the Air Force. Not solely for selfish reasons, 9-11 gave me a solid reason to join and my dad was in the Air Force as well as my older brother. I went into the Air Force with solid ASVAB scores(nothing amazing, simply higher than minimums) I didn’t even complete one section because it was too boring LOL I was given the job of surgical technician. This is a professional healthcare career, very few menial tasks completed and a massive amount of daily importance in regards to responsibility for other humans well being. I did just fine in basic training as I can follow directions just fine and the structure did great things for me, and helped me learn organizational skills I NEVER had. During technical school I went as expected with a solid B average in testing and I did fantastic in skills portion and passed all of it. I struggled with writing case reports and time management, but ultimately I got through. I gained a great deal of self confidence I never had before. Then upon getting to my first duty station my desire to go, go , go and never sit still helped me absolutley THRIVE! I still struggled with testing when I did my CDCs but my supervisor helped me develop study habits and test taking skills and I passed. I was given a TON of extra duties and resposibilities well above my pay grade because of my constant drive to keep going while at work, also the stimulation of the operating room was an environment that was great for me. I suddenly was able to be a well organized person while at work. I spent 6 years in the Air Force and promoted without issue and I was given many unit, group and wing level awards for my work performance. All while having undiagnosed ADHD. After leaving the Air Force(i chose not to re-enlist so I could pursue school and be available for the kiddos I created with my also activity husband, who is still serving). Of course with college came more struggle. I struggled with depression and anxiety for years trying to find my place in the civilian world and ultimately upon starting nursing and withdrawing within 3 weeks I became uncertain if I would EVER be able to complete a college degree, I thought I was simply not smart enough given my academic struggles and I felt like I hit rock bottom, I was even suicidal. My husband pushed me to go to therapy to fight my depression. I ultimately was diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD(non military related), GAD, and Social Anxiety. For 2 years I took anti-depressants. I HATED taking them and how they made me feel and the weight gain. Then my daughter started 2nd grade. She was absolutely struggling. Not because she wasn’t smart enough but because she had ADHD, something we had been fairly aware she might have since she was age 3(my mother in law is an elementary school teacher and told us she suspected it). We decided to have her professionally evaluated for ADHD to determine if we should consider starting her on medication. (Again recommendation from my MIL was that if she was struggling and had ADHD medication should be considered). Ultimately because of her teachers refusing to aid help her with organizational tasks that were making her lose assigments and get incomplete and failing grades we started her on a medication trial. Ritalin helped for about 2hours. Next she tried Adderall and it worked great got her til just about the end of the school day. And shes been doing great since. Now back on subject of me. When she was being formally evaluated by the psychologist said to me well obviously you know she has ADHD because you do. How do you treat yours? I said I don’t. I never have. and it trigger kind of an ah ha moment for me. If my daughter was doing so well on medication why didn’t I talk to my doctor about my options. I titrated off my antidepressents and started adderrall. Absolutely everything in life is better! Even my anxiety and depression! My anxiety and depression stem from my ADHD. After about 1 year on medication I am 1 month into nursing school and absolutely THRIVING for the first time in my life.

    So whats the moral of the long story? People with ADHD can do wonderfully in the military, however they will HAVE to do it without medication! There’s a few good reasons. In a deployed setting you can’t typically be on any normal medications(the exception being birth control) as there may not be a capability to refill or replace it. With birth control they typically send you with enough to last the entire deployment. (women need to take BC whether they are abstaining from sex or not if they take it). Additionally, yes dealing with the issues of an individual not taking a prescribed medication is a concern. Yes withdraw is possible as well as the issues of dealing with withdraw. So the armed services asking that you not take the medication for 12 months and pass a drug test seems fairly reasonable. So if someone is passionate about wanting to serve in the military. Just be willing to do whatever will make it able for you to join and if that means you have to give up medication and show that you can perform your expected duties without it then you have to willing to give up the medication. Not all people take medication for their ADHD and some people choose to only take medication for seasons in their lives. All are up to the individual. So if you’re reading this and you are a young person wanting to join the military but worried about your diagnosis talk to a recruiter and see if it can be worked around even if it means having to wait to join!

  8. I have ADD and did serve 10 years in the military. The article list a lot of down falls with having Add/ADHD but none of the positive. I joined the military for the structure and discipline I didn’t receive in the school system. I wasn’t diagnosed at the time but I definitely new that I was and had all the symptoms to prove it. The the military gave me a environment where I thrived, my hyper focus, ability to think outside the box, and ability to perform under pressure made me a great fit

  9. I believe they have similar restrictions in the Canadian military, e.g., disqualification if on medication (not only for ADHD but for many medical conditions). Anyway, there’s a military school in Ontario that is supposed to be tailor-made for children and adolescents with ADHD and/or LD. Just interesting that it was founded by a retired major who recognizes the ideal fit of this learning environment for many with ADHD.

  10. I am 73 years old, retired from the US Navy, and I was diagnosed with ADHD a year and a half ago. When I enlisted in 1967, ADHD wasn’t even a thing. But I know that I had it because I was a poster boy for ADHD. After Boot Camp, I went to 8 weeks of Basic Electronics School and graduated with a 97 average. I was interested in the subject. But when I went out to the fleet, I experienced problems. Hurry up and wait was the rule as opposed to the exception. I also experienced intra personal problems. I know now why. But I’m grateful for the training that I had in electronics because after the Navy I worked in the service industry as a field service engineer. So, I think it’s a case by case situation. People with ADHD will continue to have problems maintaining relationships with their team mates… but if they can manage that, they should be successful.

  11. I served over 6 years and wasn’t diagnosed until long after I left the service. I joined in part because I lacked direction in college, but became interested in the corpsman position with the USCG. All of this is hindsight, but I now recognize that issues I had in boot camp were in part related to my ADHD, but I made it through successfully and excelled onboard ship, in my A school, and as a petty officer. On the job, my hyperfocus was a benefit and I wouldn’t say my struggles with the down sides of ADHD were any worse than what my peers went through.

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