The U.S. Army is rescinding its recently announced policy of allowing people with a history of mental illness to get a waiver in order to serve in the military, a welcome move but one that should never have been necessary, according to a former U.S. Army special forces commander.
Earlier this week, the Army announced it instituted a policy in August that allowed waivers to be issued so that potential recruits could circumvent the ban on service members with a history of mental illnesses ranging from bipolar disorder to depression to self-mutilation and alcohol or drug abuse. The Army admitted the move was designed to boost sagging recruiting numbers.
On Wednesday, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley said the Army is reversing course. Milley says the policy on waivers was never actually implemented but was being debates with the Army’s leadership.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. General William “Jerry” Boykin, who spent most of his career in special forces, says the Army is making the right call after entertaining a terrible idea.
“I will take the chief of staff of the Army’s word for the fact that it was still being studied but it’s disturbing that we’re even studying this,” said Boykin, who believes the Army’s sudden shift is due more to public relations than because it believes this was a terrible idea.
“I think they were unprepared for the blowback. I’m appalled that in a world that’s so transparent today you’d think you could do something like this and that this is not going to be a major story,” said Boykin.
He says the idea of allowing people with mental illness to serve in combat arms has never been embraced even when manpower was desperately needed.
Listen to the interview:
“We didn’t even do this in Vietnam,” said Boykin, who says the biggest shift in standards was allowing GED recipients to serve rather than insist upon high school graduates.
“This is as low as the Army has ever dropped in terms of a lack of focus on readiness and quality people,” said Boykin. “It’s hard to brag that we have the highest quality people that we’ve ever had in our military – which our Army does regularly – and then look at the fact that we’re bringing people in that have a history of self-mutilation.”
Boykin says combat already takes a great toll on the mental health of our soldiers and that putting people with mental health problems into the fray is a recipe for disaster.
“Combat itself is probably the most stressful thing that a human can do. It’s not just the fear associated with it but it’s the long-term effects of seeing people that you care about die and be wounded in severe ways. That marks you.
“That has an effect on an individual that is different for each individual but ultimately becomes a very emotional thing. To bring people in that are already struggling is just insanity. It makes no sense,” said Boykin.
Boykin says the very top of our military’s chain of command can and must do better.
“I’m disappointed in the leadership of our military. Also, our president needs to step in and say, ‘Stop this nonsense. We’re not going to do this. We’ll do whatever we have to do to recruit a professional Army but we’re not going to do this nonsense,'” said Boykin, who adds there is no way recruiters could weed out all the people with mental health issues who might pose a threat to themselves or members of their units.
One reason the military brass did not immediately kill the waivers idea is because they wouldn’t be tasked with dealing with problem recruits or the punishments related to their conduct.
A retired senior non-commissioned officer who served in Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom who prefers to remain anonymous says it’s young officers and enlisted men who would be tasked with diagnosing these issues.
“The lowest level leadership are corporals, SGTs, SSGs, SFCs, lieutenants. All guys 18-24 years old, have no inkling how to spot a potential suicide or mass shooter. They’re also the guys that the command is going to hang out to dry if something happens for being ‘poor leaders’ and not spotting something in time,” the Army veteran said.
He also says there is no protocol for dealing with mental health issues once a person is in the service.
“The low level leadership hasn’t been trained to deal with these people. There is ‘suicide prevention training’ which is a joke, but it’s more oriented towards a normal guy that’s had too many deployments, combat stress or family issues – it’s not tailored at all to somebody that already mentally ill,” he said.
Boykin also was appalled that at the very time when mental health problems tend to be an issue for many mass shooters, the Army either decided or was close to deciding to give guns to people with some of those same diagnoses.
Boykin also says this slide in standards is an ongoing symptom of the way the Obama administration treated the military.
“It is a reflection of eight years under a commander-in-chief who paid no attention whatsoever to readiness of our military. That’s why you’re having trouble recruiting,” said Boykin.
“It’s because moms and dads during those eight years, when their son or their daughter had to give up their faith for example, or had to come in a military that was being used for social experiments, people got turned off to coming into the military,” said Boykin.
He says parents will have the same reaction to an Army considering allowing people with a history of mental illness to take up arms.
Boykin urges the military to make all decisions based on one simple criteria.
“No decision regarding our military should be made until the question has been asked, ‘How does this impact the readiness?’ Is it a positive? If it’s a positive, it’s OK to do it. Is it a negative, it’s not alright to do it. If it’s neutral, then it could go either way. In this case, you have to know that this is a negative,” said Boykin.
But what if recruitment numbers aren’t met? Boykin says there are more important things.
“I’d rather go into combat with ten good men that were reliable that I could trust than a thousand that were questionable,” he said.
Boykin says a laser focus on readiness will make the U.S. military the dominant fighting force it always ought to be.
“We can turn this around. Stop the social experiments. Change the rules of engagement, where men and women can go into combat to win and restore the military budget to where they know that they have the necessary equipment to fight the nation’s wars and be victorious,” said Boykin.