Tammy Bruce: Filling military quotas with the mentally ill

Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Washington Times.

The Army very quietly announced in August that it will lift a ban on waivers allowing people with a history of mental health issues, as well as alcohol and drug abuse, to join their ranks. Even in normal times this should concern you greatly, let alone when the world appears to be preparing for war.

Meeting recruitment goals is one of the reasons for this dangerous decision to relax certain recruiting conditions.

USA Today reports, “The decision to open Army recruiting to those with mental health conditions comes 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.”

What sort of mental health issues will the Army now consider as potentially acceptable? Self-mutilation, bipolar disorder, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Ironically, the original ban on these waivers was put in place in 2009 during a surge in suicides in the aftermath of the Iraq war surge. USA Today reported in 2010 that one soldier in nine left the Army because of a mental disorder, blaming the “emotional toll of multiple deployments” as the cause.

While the impact of the war theater can account for issues such as PTSD, in 2014 “the largest study of mental health risks within the military found that many soldiers suffer from some form of mental illness, and rates of many of these disorders are much higher in soldiers than in civilians,” CNN reported.

Moreover, “Almost 25 percent of nearly 5,500 active-duty, non-deployed Army soldiers surveyed tested positive for a mental disorder of some kind, and 11 percent within that subgroup also tested positive for more than one illness,” CNN noted. “Some of those conditions are related to the hard experience of a wartime Army, but [Ronald Kessler, one of the lead authors of the study] said nearly half of the soldiers who were diagnosed with a mental disorder had it when they enlisted.”

The Army argues they’re now able to safely make these decisions because of the “availability of medical records.” That’s nice, but here’s the problem with something like self-mutilation — it indicates a deeper psychological problem that a medical record may not illuminate.

The National Institutes of Mental Health tell us, “Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.” Additionally, it is “defined by manic episodes that last at least 7 days, or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Usually, depressive episodes occur as well, typically lasting at least 2 weeks,” according to NIMH.

Not exactly an optimum situation when deployed to chase down the insane terrorist enemy.

Yes, many mental illnesses can be controlled with medication, but that also relies on the patient taking that medication. In a theater of war, the risks are already monumentally high. Why would we put any troop at even greater risk by adding the unpredictable element of mental illness or drug abuse?

We still hear arguments about needing to end “shame” about mental illness, but this has nothing to with shame, and everything to do with fairness and safety, including for those afflicted.

In May, 2017, three months before the Army decided to lift the ban, “Most troops booted from the military for misconduct had mental issues” was the headline at USA Today. “More than three of every five troops dismissed from service for misconduct from 2011-2015 had been diagnosed” with a mental disorder. With their less-than-honorable discharges these troops may lose their VA health benefits.

Former Army physician Mike Simpson, who served more than three decades in the military, told the Daily Caller Foundation, ” ‘Few people would argue that military life is stressful, and can expose any weakness in a person’s mental armor,’ Dr. Simpson said. ‘This is particularly true today, as we are engaged in a dynamic and asymmetrical war on terror throughout the globe. Today, more than ever, we need to be recruiting the most mentally and physically resilient recruits possible for our military. Now is not a time to lower standards. On the contrary, mental and psychological screening should be even more stringent.’ “

Last year, the VA study found that 20 veterans commit suicide every day. We can work to mitigate the psychological impact of the war experience on those psychologically healthy. But if we have any respect for our fellow citizens and loved ones struggling with mental illness, the last thing we should do is place them in the most dangerous physical and psychological environments that man has created in order to meet a quota.

Tammy Bruce is a radio talk-show host, New York Times best-selling author and Fox News political contributor.