Every year, thousands of young Americans join the Armed Forces, today comprising about 1.3 million active service members spanning the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy. (And, most recently, the Space Force.)
Military service is an appealing and often successful career option for teens and young adults who thrive in high-energy situations, collaborate creatively with others, respond positively to clear expectations, and function best with structure.
In many ways, it is an excellent fit for individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — which makes the military’s restrictions on recruits with ADHD all the more frustrating.
Enlistment steps and requirements are similar across the military, varying only slightly from branch to branch. Apart from age and educational qualifications, the military outlines medical standards for enlistment and appointment, including an extensive list of physical, mental, and behavioral conditions that could disqualify an otherwise exceptional candidate.
ADHD is classified as one of those restricted conditions. This does not mean that it’s impossible to join the military with ADHD, but it does mean it’s more complicated and may require advanced planning.
Does ADHD Disqualify You from Joining the Military?
According to Department of Defense (DOD) guidelines last updated in 2018, ADHD is considered a disqualifying condition if any of the following exists alongside the diagnosis:
- A recommended or prescribed Individualized Education Program (IEP), 504 Plan, or work accommodations after the 14th birthday;
- A history of comorbid mental disorders;
- Prescribed ADHD medication in the previous 24 months; or
- Documentation of adverse academic, occupational, or work performance.
Other potentially disqualifying conditions under the DOD’s “Learning, Psychiatric, and Behavioral Disorders” section include dyslexia, autism, depressive disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and anxiety.
Can You Get a Waiver for ADHD in the Military?
A candidate with ADHD who meets the criteria outlined above needs a medical waiver to be able to enlist into any branch of the military. Medical waivers are initiated and requested by the specific military branch per DOD provisions that “allow applicants who do not meet the physical and medical standards… to be considered for a medical waiver.”
Securing a medical waiver for ADHD, however, is a lengthy, multi-step, and largely imprecise process that carries no guarantees.
Well-documented information regarding the medical waiver process and criteria for each individual branch, for instance, is difficult to find. What’s more, recruiters for each military branch (and even within the same branch) tend to be inconsistent in the information and advice provided to applicants with ADHD. Variations in candidates’ medical histories and enlistment paths, moreover, makes it nearly impossible to find one, uniform path for hopeful candidates with ADHD.
How Do You Get a Medical Waiver?
Applicants typically learn about the medical waiver process when they meet with a recruiter — the first enlistment step for any branch.
Most applicants disclose their ADHD history in conversation with the recruiter, but they also must indicate their ADHD history in the medical documents they must fill out as part of the enlistment process.
One of these documents is the Accessions Medical Prescreen Report, or the DD 2807-2, which requires applicants to check “yes” or “no” if they were evaluated or treated for ADHD, and if they are taking or have taken medication to improve attention. Applicants must also explain all “yes” answers in a separate section. Consequences for failing to answer truthfully or making false statements are noted in the form.
This prescreen form is completed with the help of the recruiter, and is reviewed by a medical professional at a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) — typically the second step in the recruitment process, during which potential enlistees take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test and undergo a medical examination.
The MEPS doctor renders medical qualification decisions, and can use the prescreen document to request additional medical records and/or make a ruling (or a preliminary one) on the applicant’s readiness. MEPS doctors’ determinations are made on an individual, case-by-case basis. If an MEPS doctor says the applicant does not meet medical standards, the respective military branch can initiate and request a medical waiver for the individual.
Each branch has its own waiver authority board, which will make the waiver determination “based on all available information regarding the issue or condition, as well as the specific needs of the military service,” according to DOD guidelines.
But what exactly does each branch look for when deciding on a waiver? There are several factors that come into play that can work in an ADHD applicant’s favor, like time spent off medication and proof of proper functioning without.
How Long Do You Have to Be Off ADHD Medication to Join the Military?
Recruiters generally tell applicants that they must be off medication for a considerable length of time — by far the most important measure to take — and show that they are able to function properly while off medication prior to starting the enlistment process and to be considered for a waiver.
The time frame required to be off medication differs across the branches and even among recruiters within the same branch. Some also recommend different approaches to demonstrating proper functioning without medication.
In the Army, Navy, and Marines in particular, recruiters largely advise applicants with ADHD to be off any and all stimulant or nonstimulant medications for at least one year.
Some recruiters, notably within the Air Force, tell applicants they must be off medication for 15 months or more (a glaring example of these inconsistencies can be observed in a possibly outdated section of the Air Force website, which says applicants must be off medication for a minimum of two years to get a waiver). The Coast Guard — which represents just 3 percent of active armed forces members — is widely considered to be the most difficult branch to successfully petition for an ADHD waiver.
The time spent off medication should be noted by a doctor (typically the prescribing doctor) in the applicant’s medical and pharmacy records, and handed in as part of the waiver process. The records should also describe the applicant’s ADHD history, diagnosis, treatment, and stability while off medication.
Apart from medical documentation, recruiters may also recommend that applicants submit transcripts and letters of recommendation to showcase evidence of successful academic and work performance while off medication.
What Will Disqualify You from Joining the Military?
1. A demonstrated need for ADHD medication
If it is demonstrated that an applicant with ADHD needs medication to function on a daily basis, a recruiter, MEPS doctor, or others involved in the recruiting process may conclude that a military career is not the best path for the applicant.
2. Poor Performance on entrance exams
Though each branch has different cutoffs, low scores on the ASVAB and a poor academic or work record can also raise red flags for recruitment and MEPS personnel. Even the applicant’s preferred career in the desired branch can impact waiver decisions. It’s important to note that there are no accommodations for the ASVAB.
3. Personal discretion
There are also times when a branch decides not to approve a candidate’s waiver application, with little reason provided. Rulings, however, can be challenged and overturned.
Take Adam*, now in his 30s, who currently performs aircraft maintenance in the Navy after successfully obtaining a medical waiver to enlist.
Adam was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school, and was prescribed a variety of stimulant medications over the years. He stopped taking medication shortly after high school. “I did not feel that it did anything in any way to make me feel good,” Adam said. “It turned me into something I was not.”
Several years later, Adam decided to enlist into the Navy, unaware of the military’s policies on ADHD. Despite being off medication for several years, he was turned down by the branch.
Disagreeing with the Navy’s decision, and determined to overturn it, he looked for help, and found an Army recruiter with experience handling enlistment procedures. The Army recruiter, who acted as an unofficial liaison between him and the Navy, was able to get the branch to reconsider on the condition that Adam find a doctor to perform a comprehensive mental evaluation on him.
Adam found a psychiatrist who ran what is known as an Axis IV Diagnosis. “It pretty much tells you, ‘Hey, this is what he has, how it affects him, how mild or severe it is, and how he can or cannot work with it,’” he said.
Adam received notice that his medical waiver had been granted weeks after submitting the report to the branch, allowing him to continue the enlistment process.
What Happens if You Lie to the Military About ADHD?
Many hopeful military candidates with ADHD grapple with whether to disclose their ADHD history at all in the recruiting process, and wonder if the benefits outweigh the potential consequences of hiding a past diagnosis.
DOD guidelines explicitly state that applicants for enlistment must fully disclose all medical history. Applicants who lie about their medical history can be disqualified from enlisting. If an individual is selected for enlistment based on false information, he or she may be subject to military prosecution or a dishonorable discharge, among other actions.
The fact is, however, that many candidates have enlisted into the armed forces after hiding or outright lying about their ADHD history. Some individuals, driven by an unyielding desire to serve their country, may be inclined not to reveal their ADHD history for fear of outright disqualification. Sometimes, the notion is proposed, in not so many words and with unspoken understandings, by recruiters themselves. This advice also appears across online forums and groups.
Others may be reluctant to submit to a lengthy waiver process with no promise of success. Those who have been off medication for quite some time and have not needed interventions to succeed at school or at work may feel even more justified in hiding their ADHD history during the enlistment process.
Take 25-year-old Jonathan*, a veteran who served as a combat medic in the Army for four years — and who did not disclose his ADHD history to his recruiter or in medical forms when he enlisted about 10 years ago.
Jonathan was diagnosed with ADHD in the 7th grade, but stopped taking medication two years later. He had been off medication for about four years by the time he decided he wanted to join the Army, and learned about the military’s stance on ADHD while doing online research.
“At the time, the advice that I received online was that, if you don’t say anything, they are not going to know, and it’s going to make your life a whole lot easier if you just keep it to yourself,” he said.
Jonathan, however, strongly advises applicants with an ADHD history against lying. “It’s not worth risking all that,” he said, referring to the consequences of getting caught lying. “And truth is, as much as I think lots of people could benefit, it’s not about including everyone.” He recalls a recruit in basic training who was kicked out for his inability to stand still without fidgeting and losing focus during certain activities — common indications of ADHD.
While he admits to experiencing initial struggles in basic training and in the classroom possibly tied to ADHD, especially with tasks that relied heavily on executive functions and focus, Jonathan considers his Army career one of the best decisions he’s ever made, as it helped him develop better habits and strategies in organization and beyond.
Today, Jonathan is in college — and taking medication to treat ADHD.
Is It Worth Pursuing a Military Career if I Have ADHD?
It is easy for applicants with ADHD who want to serve in the military to feel discouraged by these guidelines. It’s important to remember, though, that recruiters do take an interest in helping applicants, especially those who advocate for themselves.
Recruiters want to, and will, work with applicants to determine their best fit in a specific branch. Recruiters can spend hours interviewing and taking questions from a single applicant. Many engage in non-binding dialogue to gauge an applicant’s eligibility before asking them commit to any processes or formally submit documentation.
Some recruiters, for example, are known to have applicants fill out a slightly modified version of the medical pre-screening report — one that will stay between the recruiter and candidate — prior to filling out the “official” version of the report. The recruiter may explain to an applicant that reviewing the modified questionnaire lets them to gauge whether a candidate’s medical history requires more documentation, and allows applicants to decide if they have the time and willingness to proceed should any red flags appear.
Hopeful service members must conduct their own research prior to joining, which means speaking to a doctor about the plan for and ramifications of getting off medication, and finding a branch and career that accommodates and accentuates strengths while minimizing weaknesses.
“Be confident in your ability to function moderately well day-to-day without medicine,” Jonathan advises applicants with ADHD. “Know that you can do basic tasks like get up, get dressed, make your bed, and be somewhere on time. If you can do that, the rest of it you just take as it comes.”
Adam, similarly, advises applicants to make sure they can work with their condition, but above all, to be relentless.
“Don’t ever stop fighting to get in if that’s what you want to do,” he said.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Updated on February 19, 2020