WASHINGTON — Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday the Army has rescinded a September memo stating that people with certain mental health issues, including self-mutilation, would be eligible for waivers to join the service.
Milley, appearing before reporters, said the Army rescinded the memo because of an article published Sunday by USA TODAY.
He maintained that the policy on considering such waivers had not changed but had been delegated to a lower level for approval.
Milley said the Army had done a “terrible” job explaining the policy. He credited USA TODAY for bringing the issue to his attention.
“There wasn’t a change in policy,” Milley said. “There cannot be a change in policy by someone who doesn’t have the authority to change policy. I know it sounds circular.”
The memo from Sept. 7 said that people with a history of “self-mutilation,” bipolar disorder, depression and drug and alcohol abuse would be eligible to obtain waivers to join the Army. The change, which was not announced publicly, was made in August, according to documents obtained by USA TODAY.
A statement to USA TODAY last week, vetted by several Army officials, reflected that a change had been made in the way the Army dealt with waivers for those mental health conditions. The ban on considering waivers for those conditions, put in place in 2009 during an epidemic of suicides among troops, had been lifted.
“In August 2017 the Army rescinded this prohibition,” Lt. Col. Randy Thompson said in a statement.
Reacting to that statement on Wednesday, Milley said it did not amount to a policy shift.
“I don’t see it that way,” he said.
The decision came as the service faces the challenging goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers through September 2018. To meet last year’s goal of 69,000, the Army accepted more recruits who fared poorly on aptitude tests, increased the number of waivers granted for marijuana use and offered hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses.
Expanding the waivers for mental health was possible in part because the Army now has access to more medical information about each potential recruit, Taylor said. The Army issued the ban on waivers in 2009 amid an epidemic of suicides among troops.
The change drew immediate fire on Capitol Hill, as Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, upbraided the nominee for the Army’s general counsel Tuesday.
“If you took a poll of this committee right now I doubt if you’d find a single one who would be approving of this practice, which we now find out about reading the daily newspaper,” McCain said.
Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the committee from Rhode Island, said he agreed with McCain’s concerns.
Meeting with McCain
Milley met Tuesday night with McCain, assured him that the memo would be rescinded and intends to make that official with a letter, Milley told reporters at the Pentagon.
The author of the memo, Milley said, was not authorized to write it and it did not have the effect of changing policy. Nonetheless, the Army deemed it necessary to disavow it after McCain threatened to hold up Pentagon nominations if the Army sought waivers for people with a history of self-mutilation.
“We the Army have done a very poor job of explaining this thing,” Milley said.