Can you enlist in the military if you have ADHD?

On the surface, enlisting in one of the armed forces seems like a good alternative for young people with ADHD who aren’t interested in going to college. Service in the military provides structure, encourages self-discipline, teaches job skills, and includes adrenaline-filled tasks, all while fulfilling the admirable role of protecting our nation. But while military service might meet many needs of a young adult with ADHD, the flip side is that the enlistment process often disqualifies applicants who have ADHD.

I’ve been looking into this lately because our younger son Alan has been talking about enlisting. He’s never been officially diagnosed with or treated for ADD – the psychologist he ended up seeing for awhile believes it is more of a “style” than a disorder – but whatever you call it, many of the signs are there: disorganization, distractedness, inattention, lack of follow-through, and the volatile emotions that are often part of the package. Like many people with ADD or ADHD, Alan prefers action and excitement over sitting at a desk, and recognizes the need for structure in his life.  He also is fascinated with weapons of all sorts. Given all this, would he be successful in the service? Would he even be able to enlist?

A few hours of researching the military policy on ADHD online turned up the following:

  • A candidate with ADHD will be disqualified if s/he has taken ADHD medication within the past year, or is currently exhibiting ADHD symptoms.
  • A candidate with a history of mood or conduct disorders will also be ineligible for service.
  • It is possible in some cases to obtain waivers (and therefore be able to enlist) by providing requested documentation that shows the applicant will be able to function as needed. The waiver process can take a long time.
  • It may be tempting not to disclose a history of ADHD treatment, but that would be a felony, with a fine and possible prison time attached.
  • The policy is the same for all branches of the military.

Because this is an important subject for which I have no first-hand knowledge, the links to the websites and forums I visited are presented below. You can see for yourself what’s being said by hopeful recruits, military personnel, and parents. Some of the information is repetitive, but that just reinforces the points being made. Where the statements are contradictory, your guess is as good as mine (unless you have personal experience and can set us all straight!)

Before we get to the links, here are definitions for two of the acronyms that show up frequently:

ASVAB: Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Here’s a fact sheet about the ASVABs. A low score on these tests will disqualify the applicant from enlisting.

MEPS: Military Entrance Processing Stations. MEPS will evaluate the applicant’s military aptitude and physical qualification, and will conduct background screening.

Now to the links…

This discussion on an ADHD website touches on: the ASVAB and MEPS requirements; that many chronic conditions are disqualifiers; the possibility of getting waivers; and that ADHD is a disqualifier for the military academies.

This discussion from a forum was started by a college student with ADHD who wants to join the military. The first answer discusses military policy; the other comments bluntly describe the drawbacks of being in the military with ADHD, and how military personnel with ADHD can let their unit down.

This Army forum brings up these points: it is important to discuss your concerns with your recruiter; studying for the ASVABs is a good idea; it can take awhile for waivers to be approved, so plan accordingly; and, waivers are more likely to be approved in the November-to- January timeframe, when recruitment is slow and quotas are often not being met.

Here’s a long forum (it has 7 pages, all fascinating) from Navy moms. You’ll read why deliberate concealment of past medical or psychological issues is a very bad idea; how the Navy finds out about such issues, and what the consequences are; how disclosing your issues results in hoops to jump through and delays, but there are sometimes insiders who can help with the paperwork; that some recruiters advise applicants to lie; why one son with ADHD liked boot camp and is thriving in the Navy; and more!  (Note that you can look up Navy terms in the sidebar on the right-hand side).

This is a question from a potential enlistee in the Air Force who had taken Ritalin, but only in elementary school. He gets a very frank answer from a retired sergeant! A few other people chime in. (The ones who advise not to disclose ADHD would probably get smacked down by the Navy moms!)

Now let’s hear from the Marines on an ADD forum! This exchange discusses coping strategies while having ADHD in the military. Some of the participants advise concealing treatment for ADHD when enlisting, but not if your service might involve getting a security clearance.

What I learned from this forum is that being in the Coast Guard requires a lot of rigorous academic skills, which may be a challenge to those with ADHD. An ex-recruiter says he doesn’t remember anyone who’d taken ADHD medications being able to enlist, but he allows that other recruiters may have had different experiences.

This link from a National Guard forum contains the wording of the regulation regarding ADHD, as of 2011, and also discusses how regulations may be updated at any time. In other words: don’t necessarily trust what you find on the Internet, but contact a knowledgeable recruiter!

With that in mind, I called our local Navy recruiter for feedback, and was given the number for the Navy’s regional PAO (that’s Public Affairs Officer, fellow civilians). Chief Stacee Puscian, based in San Diego, confirmed the one-year-with-no-meds rule. She would not discourage anyone with a history of ADHD from trying to enlist, as long as they can meet the criteria for enlisting. For people with a history of mood disorders such as depression, the decision will be made on a case-by-case basis after a psychiatric evaluation by the MEPS personnel. (Thanks to Chief Puscian for that input!)

If you can stand clicking one more link, here is a piece from ADDitude magazine, giving the opinion that while the current military recruitment policy is better than previous, more restrictive policies, it is still too exclusionary of people with ADHD.

The take-away seems to be that people with ADHD can enlist in the military, but they will have to expect more requests for documentation, and more delays, and they are more likely – maybe a lot more likely – to be found ineligible than someone who doesn’t have a chronic condition. Having a back-up plan seems especially wise.

***

NOTE: you might also be interested in this post: Law enforcement careers and ADHD

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About janet565

I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. Born and raised in New Jersey, I've also lived in upstate New York and in Oregon. My profession involves maps and geography, which is usually very interesting. My hobbies are pretty boring - none of them involve tigers (or ligers) or jumping out of aircraft - so they do not bear mention here. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....

18 responses to “Can you enlist in the military if you have ADHD?”

  1. Carson says :

    Thanks for your write up. My youngest is 5, and he is ready for the Marine Corps. This topic is one item that more than just a “case by case”, because there is the regulations, the interviewers perceptions and experiences, as well as the individual’s personality and type. ADDitude’s article is a bit too free-spirited when there is so many lives at stake, not to mention US assets. Plus the pilots in the Vietnam war were frequently “enhanced” with performance medications. It never works out in the long run though. Impulsiveness and inattentiveness is not cured by structure, and it’s possible for those two issues (for example) to cost some their career or rank. There are jobs in the Army that can be satisfying and eventful for an ADHD person, but nothing that you could accommodate for every ADHD type. I worked in ammo with a bit of hyper-focus, my job worked out great, but the structure was a pain…lol.

    Like

    • janet565 says :

      Thanks for your input! Your point is well taken, about there NOT being a “one-size-fits-all” solution to the best assignments for people with ADHD.

      Like

  2. Kaitlin says :

    I am currently an E3 enlisted in the USAF. I was diagnosed with ADD in 2007. When I decided to enlisted in 2012, my recruiter told me it was fine that I have ADD as long as I was off my meds for 6 months before joining. I stopped taking my meds immediately and then I had to provide medical records at MEPS to prove that I hadn’t been taking them. I’ve been in for 21 months now and I recently started to feel like it’d be helpful for me to get back on my meds, so I asked my Primary Care Manager. She told me that an ADD diagnosis is still NOT disqualifying after you’re in. She said all I had to do was go to Behavioral Health to be re-diagnosed and approved for medication by a specialists. I called and told them my PCM recommended I come in for an ADD/ADHD screening, then I went in, did some tests, received a new diagnosis, and the specialist sent his approval to my PCM to prescribe the meds. He said he felt comfortable approving me because I’ve been in for over a year now and I’ve proven that I’m capable of performing my duties without meds. I actually just picked up my new meds TODAY (4/14/14) and my PCM confirmed again that this will NOT affect my career at all. Good luck to all future ADD/ADHD service members!

    Like

    • janet565 says :

      Kaitlin, thanks so much for sharing your story! It’s tremendously helpful, and great to hear how your situation has played out positively. Best wishes as you continue your service.

      Like

    • Donna Price says :

      Kaitlin, thank you for your comments. My son is graduating form HS next month, and is having a hard time getting straight answers about enlisting in the Air Force. We’ve been told several things about people with ADHD enlisting, from “no” to “have to be off meds for 2+ years”. We can’t get a straight definitive answer. Would you mind sharing with me your recruiter’s name? I would love to speak with them. Thank you

      Like

      • Annie Elkey says :

        My Grandson is trying to enlist in the Navy. He is ADHD but off meds for over a year. He graduated high school in June with a 3.6 gpa. He has been told he was disqualified, had to be off meds since age 13. He works out everyday, works etc. he scored a 70 on his asvab or so. Any help would be much appreciated. Thank you

        Like

      • janet565 says :

        Annie, not that I’m an expert, but I’ve never come across any “no meds since the age of 13” rule. At most, I’ve heard that some recruiters tell candidates they had to have been off their ADHD meds for two years (see Donna’s comment), not the “one year off” rule that I encountered when researching the blog post last September. The best advice I can offer is to ask a local recruiter for the phone number of their superior, and ask him/her for clarification on this issue. The higher up the chain of command, the more authoritative the answer is likely to be. Possibly the rules have changed since I wrote the blog post – or, the local recruiter might be misinformed, or giving out information that hasn’t been updated. Your grandson sounds like he has a lot to offer, and I hope things work out for him!

        Like

    • Nishant Gandhi says :

      Hi Kaitlin, I’m currently a Senior pre-med interested in applying to be a Military Physician. Though I have no previous military experience, I’d like to enlist through the HPSP program. However, I fear that I may have ADHD. I’m planning to get screened soon and most likely find medications to alleviate it. However, if I wanted to enlist in the military though the HPSP program. What are my chances if I end up having ADHD and what would be a good route?

      Like

  3. DEBRA says :

    Wants to really join

    Like

  4. joe says :

    I was a NCO in the army. The problem is forgetting things, and baggage. And my unit had a young private, after the fact committed suicide in the parking lot outside our barracks, he was awol for first formation. After the run, another young private female seen him in his car. And she thought he was asleep, kicked back. When she got closer and seen inside the car, He had blown his brains out. along with 4 other shots through the roof of his car only thinking someone would stop him. How about that poor girl that seen this. Ya alot of suicide prevention for the next 3 months on my base. If we had know he was adhd and off his meds, I’m sure the young girl that seen this tragity would not of gotten out of the military a 3 months later freaking out.

    Like

  5. Gerardo says :

    Soldier or not soldier adhd people are totally undisputed universal and galaxy all times of existance champions in subjects of courage, bravery, and balls to fight all those inmense pain that the people say its small, but any person will shit the pants of the fear when they suffer only the half of one of the eternities of pain and challenges hay an adhd person must face during his life…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Danielle says :

    Thank you so very much for your article. While I was reading , I felt like you were telling my story re: my 16 year old son. He has been what I always referred to as a “Hyper Child”. I knew he had a form of add/adhd but never wanted him diagnosed, labeled. I was afraid of that diagnosis haunting him for future career opportunities. When he reached highschool his grades were being severely affected. I spoke with counselor, emailed his teachers. Kept on top of it as much as a single mother could. His attention span is very short. He will tell me he zones or tunes out when teacher is talking, cannot read a paragraph and remember what he just read. All the signs were obvious.
    I had to give my child the help and support he needed regardless of what I thought would hinder him. He needed the help now. I suppose you must weigh out your own personal situation. My son started to take Staterra which is a non stimulant, not sure if it was a placebo effect . Now I know for some who do not have children with this May read this and say well big deal , that’s what you son should be doing.
    Let me tell you this was a huge deal.
    My son text me after his math class and said “Wow mom, I can’t believe I was able to take the exam, not zone out, actually finish it” that’s incredible .
    I had tears in my eyes along with feelings of guilt. How could I have waited so long.
    My son has always made very clear he has no interest in college, could never sit in a cubicle all day and his hear my and soul belong in the military.
    I am afraid with this diagnosis and medication that it will prohibit his chances.
    And that breaks my heart.
    There has to be more people out there with same situation who are struggling with these issues.
    Thank you again,
    The best of luck to you and your family.
    Danielle
    Lotusskin3@gmail.com

    Like

    • janet565 says :

      Thanks for sharing your son’s story, and for your good wishes. I’m sure there are many people who can relate to your dilemma (including me). Since some people seem to handle their ADHD symptoms as they get older, without medication, maybe teens who have the military as an ultimate goal can try general employment for a few years after high school, THEN see if they can function all right without meds – and if so, give the military a try after waiting a year without meds. Or, we can hope that the military will modify their policy. Think of all the people in the military who “cope” with their untreated neurological/psychological issues by using excessive alcohol or drugs – is that really preferable to someone who gets treatment and then functions well? I think not!

      Like

      • Kim Greenberg says :

        Hi
        My son was diagnosed with mild add when he was 6. He was not hyper…just disorganized and unfocused at times. He took Ritalin and then eventually concerts until he was 19 (senior year ofhigh school). He no longer wanted to take the meds. He did not want side effects. He went off to college without them and each semester has done better and better. He will graduate with a 3.1 GPA. He graduated HS with a B+ GPA. He has not had any educational supports in either situation. He has proven he can handle the academics and does well ar summer jobs. He played hockey and lacrosse and did have three mild concussions with no residual problems. At 23 he is applyingto coast guard. They asked for all his medical records and transcript. He had taken asvab in hs and scored a 78. He would have yo take again. But he was medically disqualified for adhd. I do not get it….he has been off for over 3 years and will graduate college with 3.1 without meds and no class supports. He can not even get to MEPS because he is disqualified before they have even examined him. He says he feels better without meds and no longer gets unfocused. I just don’t get why. He is very committed to learning maritime law enforcement and applying his criminal justice degree and hss a passion for CG.

        Like

      • janet565 says :

        That is so frustrating. Our son also was turned down by the Coast Guard before MEPS – with his ASVAB scores he qualified to get into more than half of the Coast Guard’s schools, and had documentation from the psychiatrist he’d seen sporadically stating that he no longer tested as having ADHD. But the CG requested the psychiatrist’s notes and found something in there they didn’t like. Game over.
        If it’s any consolation, our son’s recruiter said that only a very small percentage of applicants get in (no more than 10%, is what I recall). The CG website says there are only 38,000 active duty men and women – that’s not very much! I’m wondering if your son would have a better chance getting in the Navy? They have 328,000 active duty, and by their rules as I understand them, your son’s ADHD wouldn’t be an issue since he’s done well without any meds for more than a year. Or the Merchant Marines? (I know very little about them.) Anyway, best of luck to him (and you) as he finds a path that’s meant for him.

        Like

  7. ajo says :

    ok so what if someone has ADHD but has never taken medications for it

    Like

    • janet565 says :

      In the time since writing the blog post, I haven’t checked to see if there have been any policy revisions. But my understanding was that someone with ADHD could join the military as long as the symptoms can be managed without medication. If it seemed likely to the recruiters that a person’s ADHD characteristics would interfere with the performance of duty, the candidate would probably be turned down. Unlike school, no accommodations would be made.
      Readers: do you have any info to the contrary?

      Like

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