At least 1 in every 6 military recruits were given waivers to enter service in fiscal 2022, the highest percentage in at least 10 years, Military Times has learned.
But in the face of historic recruiting challenges, the military’s recordkeeping is spotty.
Data provided by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in November 2022 doesn’t match figures provided by the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Space Force in March 2023. The Army refused to provide the information for this story.
In November, the Pentagon told Military Times that 22,623 recruits with no prior military service had waivers approved in fiscal 2022, out of a total of 130,346 prospective service members. That means around 17% of incoming troops were accepted with caveats for their health, prior misconduct, drug use, dependents or tattoos.
That’s about 6 percentage points higher than the rate in 2013, after the percentage hovered around 12% for much of the past decade, according to Pentagon data.
Numbers provided by four of the five armed forces indicated waivers played an even greater role in accessions last year.
In response to a Feb. 28 query from Military Times, the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Space Force said they approved 26,881 waivers across nearly 89,600 active duty recruits — about 30% of the incoming force. (Some recruits need multiple waivers.)
That’s nearly 4,000 more waivers overall than were reported by the Pentagon, not including the Army, the largest military service.
Four months after the Pentagon provided waiver data to Military Times, DoD spokesperson Maj. Charlie Dietz told Military Times to disregard the numbers.
“The department doesn’t track the waivers, as that is for the services to do,” he said. “Each service has the final waiver approval authority and, as such, sets the standard for that service regarding types of waivers that will be considered.”
The Army declined to provide a response by press time, after shuffling the query between multiple offices for weeks and repeatedly asking Military Times to file a Freedom of Information Act request — which the service’s own regulations discourage it from doing.
As waivers are increasingly relied upon to help the military meet its annual recruiting goals, the Pentagon still isn’t sure how many potential enlistees that process may be leaving on the table. The Defense Department doesn’t know how many people appeal their waiver decisions, or how many people drop out of consideration because their case is overly complicated or taking too long.
That lack of insight further complicates the transition to MHS Genesis, the military’s new electronic health record system that was implemented across the recruiting enterprise in 2022. Rather than rely on recruits to recall the details of their medical histories and past prescriptions, Genesis compiles that information on its own. But that’s led to more waivers for a larger number of health issues that previously could have gone unnoticed.
Here’s where accession waivers for new active duty recruits stood across the Department of Defense in fiscal 2022:
- The Navy issued 17,768 waivers — including 15,900 medical exemptions — out of the 29,000 that were requested for approximately 34,300 active duty recruits in fiscal 2022. That’s about 3,000 more medical waivers than were requested in 2021, and nearly 12,000 more than were requested in 2018. (The Navy is the only service that tracks requested waivers.)
- The Air Force issued 4,334 waivers — including 3,141 medical exemptions — to approximately 26,200 active duty recruits in fiscal 2022. About 430 more medical waivers than were approved 2021.
- The Marine Corps issued 4,707 waivers — including 4,229 medical exemptions — to approximately 28,600 active duty and reserve recruits in fiscal 2022. About 150 more medical waivers were approved than in 2021.
- The Space Force issued 72 waivers — including 65 medical exemptions — to approximately 500 active duty recruits in fiscal 2022. The service, founded in 2019, did not provide prior-year data.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.