Featured image: Recruits march in formation at Recruit Training Command (RTC). More than 30,000 recruits graduate annually from the Navy’s only boot camp. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Camilo Fernan/Released)
NOTE: This article first appeared at In Military.
As the U.S. military navigates the fog of the coronavirus pandemic, recruiters and military entrance processing stations (known as MEPS) are receiving new guidance on the acceptance of candidates who have tested positive for COVID-19.
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A recent Department of Defense memo circulating on Twitter four days ago says, “During the medical history interview or examination, a history of COVID-19, confirmed by either a laboratory test or a clinician diagnosis, is permanently disqualifying.”
A day later, a defense official reported to Military Times that the guidance has been updated to limit only candidates who have been hospitalized as a result of COVID-19. The article says, “Military Entrance Processing Command will now accept recruits who have previously tested positive for coronavirus as long as they haven’t been hospitalized.”
There’s Often a Waiver for Medical Issues in Military Service
The list of medical issues that could prevent one from joining the military reads like a desktop physician’s manual of debilitating conditions. However, some medical conditions, even COVID-19, listed as disqualifying can be waived when a potential servicemember applies for enlistment.
In fact, a recruiting commander can waive many military entrance requirements, and different branches have different standards of what waivers they permit. Even felons can join any branch of the military with the right waiver, assuming the crime was nonviolent. But the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps are known for approving the fewest number of waivers annually.
It only seems prudent that the military would be hesitant to accept a COVID-19 survivor. There has been nearly no existing research on the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on people’s health, especially lung damage. There is also no consensus yet on whether COVID-19 antibodies provide protection against reinfection.
Another thing the DoD must consider is how to process active-duty personnel who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Using the same logic as the recruiting guidelines, is an active-duty servicemember who tests positive for COVID-19 barred from reenlistment?
Force Readiness Implications and COVID-19
These are serious questions that directly impact America’s readiness to meet threats abroad. A shortage in military personnel impacts our ability to not only meet threats but to promptly respond to humanitarian missions.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from 2019 looked at the personnel shortages in the U.S. Army and provided solutions. The number one stated goal of Army leadership is readiness. That goal includes recovering the readiness lost from years of sustained conflict while the Army prepared for potential large-scale combat operations against a global competitor such as Russia or China.
In an effort to achieve higher, more consistent levels of readiness over longer time periods, the Army is implementing a redesigned way to generate forces. This is known as the sustainable readiness concept — the Army’s collective efforts to revise its force generation processes.
But now, COVID-19-related recruiting challenges must be considered. More than a decade of combating extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria — as well as other operations in Africa, Eastern Europe, and South America — have resulted in unrelenting demands on troops and equipment.
The ongoing high operations tempo combined with recruiting challenges brought on by a global pandemic means that the DoD will have to think strategically about how to meet tomorrow’s challenges with fewer resources.
Joining the Military after Being a COVID-19-Positive Candidate
As for COVID-19-positive candidates, the individual’s recruiter will have to apply for a medical waiver. Their records will be reviewed, and MEPS physicians will determine eligibility.
There is a fine line that the DoD must walk between adversely impacting force readiness and knowingly allowing a candidate who has tested positive for COVID-19 in the past to join the service. That individual may become the beneficiary of disability payments after separation from the military.
There are several reasons candidates are medically screened. The screening ensures that they can perform their duties effectively and safely, but also that they don’t become a fiscal burden to the state once their military careers have ended.
For many servicemembers, joining the military is the culmination of a lifelong dream, a family tradition or a way out of poverty. Like so many other areas of American life that have been impacted, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we select candidates for active duty in our nation’s military.
This change in recruiting is perhaps why the DoD itself has funded COVID-19 vaccine research at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command and U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. For its part, the Army received an additional $900 million in funding to help prevent, detect and treat COVID-19.
For now, there are only two paths out of the DoD’s challenging position: Herd immunity or a successful vaccine. Both options are months to years from becoming reality. Until then, social distancing and good hygiene are our best tools in the ongoing war against COVID-19.