The Military Is Missing Recruitment Goals. Are Thousands Being Unnecessarily Disqualified?
2023/08/09

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Carlos Morales was a few drinks in late one evening when he first contacted his local Coast Guard recruiting office, but when he woke up the next day, he did not regret his late-night submission.

He had been eyeing service for a decade, he tells The War Horse. He thought about joining the Marines at 19, then decided to attend the prestigious Boston University. After graduation, he started a successful personal training business. Life got in the way, but he could not shake the small signs the world placed in his path.

“Despite having carved out a great life for myself, I have always felt a pull to serve,” Morales says.

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As a kid with a post-9/11 childhood, war had appeared daily in his periphery—in the news, through the people he saw in uniform, or on bumper stickers or yard signs showing support for the troops. But as an adult, he began to understand he could be part of the group that served.

After a few years, health science degree in hand, he decided to join the military.

Morales didn’t hide the autism diagnosis he had received as an adult. While teachers, parents, and therapists often catch —not looking people in the eyes, not smiling or responding to social cues, repetitive motions like hand flapping, or aversion to certain textures—in people with autism by the time they’re

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years old, Morales did not receive his diagnosis until he was 25. Because his symptoms were mild—mild enough that he earned his way into BU and then completed his degree—he figured getting a health waiver to enter the Coast Guard would be fairly easy.

“I am autistic, not incapable,” Morales says. He is one of about five million Americans diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

He told his recruiter immediately. He then spent months navigating the service’s application process, carving out time between training sessions, spending more than 50 hours collecting paperwork that stretched back to elementary school, and filling out countless forms.

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“It felt like the worst scavenger hunt in which I’ve ever participated,” Morales says.

After four months of bureaucracy, the Coast Guard told him he didn’t qualify for service.

Then they stopped returning his emails and phone calls.

Morales’s recruiter did not respond to a request for comment.

Autism is of conditions—from asthma to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder to a history of anxiety—the Defense Department says disqualifies people from serving in the military.

The average American doesn’t meet the basic qualifications to serve, and the pool of eligible Americans has dropped from . About 4% of eligible applicants would be ruled out for psychological and developmental diagnoses, such as autism, depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to the Defense Department, which works out to thousands of potential recruits a year.

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As the military faces a recruiting crisis, with the Army, Navy, and Air Force this year, the military medical waiver process may no longer be serving the services. Qualified candidates may not bother to apply because the process is so opaque—enough so that Congress has enacted legislation to ensure medical waivers do not “inappropriately” disqualify candidates. And how each service processes medical waivers varies, frustrating recruiters and recruits alike. This affects a generation of potential recruits—including young adults diagnosed with ADHD or people with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum who may be more inclined to choose careers in cybersecurity or coding—who often have the focus on detail and ability to see patterns the military needs to protect the United States. However, the Defense Department has launched a pilot program to try to streamline the issue, and it looks as if recent changes may have affected the number of potential recruits being turned away.

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