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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

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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.

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