How to Get a Medical Waiver to Join the Military

Doctor using digital tablet with patient
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Nobody can tell you what your chances of waiver approval are as you consider joining the military. Depending on your issue, it could be an easy process (like LASIK or PRK Laser Eye Surgery) or a difficult and long process for serious knee or shoulder surgeries.

There is a set of standards that you can go by -- Medical Disqualifying Ailments for Military Service, but every waiver request is evaluated individually, using several individual factors. No two waivers are alike.

Medical Waivers

The Department of Defense (DOD) sets the medical standards for people wishing to join the U.S. Military. These standards are the same for all the Military branches, including the Coast Guard. (The Department of Homeland Security has agreed to use the same standards to make MEPS processing easier. 

The process starts when you complete the medical pre-screening form at the recruiter's office. The recruiter sends this up to MEPS when he/she asks for a medical examination appointment. Now, MEPS does not belong to any particular branch of service. It's what's known as a "Joint Command," and operates independently from all the service branches.  The form is reviewed by a doctor at MEPS. If there are any potentially disqualifying medical conditions listed on the form, MEPS may contact the recruiter to ensure you bring a copy of your civilian medical records (concerning the condition) with you to the examination.

Sometimes the doctor doing the review will determine you have a medical condition which is obviously disqualifying with little or no chance of a waiver. In such cases, MEPS may disqualify you on the spot, and refuse to do the medical examination at all. If this happens, your journey into the military has ended. There is no appeal to this. It's technically possible for the recruiting commander of the service you're trying to join to go over MEPS and request a medical waiver from their own medical command, but this is a rare event.

Once your medical examination is complete, you are determined to be either "medical qualified for military service," or "medically disqualified for military service," according to the medical standards set by DOD. There are two types of disqualifications: temporary and permanent. "Permanent" doesn't necessarily mean you can't join the Military, and "Temporary" doesn't mean you need a waiver. Temporary means that you currently have a disqualifying medical condition, but that will change with time.

An example would be a broken toe. You can't enlist with a broken toe, but once it heals (assuming there are no complications) the condition will no longer be disqualifying, and you'll be able to enlist without a waiver. Permanent means you have a disqualifying medical condition that isn't going to change with time, such as a history of depression. You can't enlist with a permanent medical disqualification unless you receive an approved waiver.

If you are found to be permanently disqualified, the MEPS doctor will indicate on your medical form whether or not he/she recommends a waiver in your case. It is the very first step in the medical waiver process. When making the recommendation, the doctor will consider the following:

  1. Is the condition progressive?
  2. Is the condition subject to aggravation by military service?
  3. Will the condition preclude satisfactory completion of prescribed training and subsequent military duty?
  4. Will the condition constitute an undue hazard to the examine or to others, particularly under combat conditions?

    Once the doctor makes his/her recommendation, MEPS is completely out of the medical waiver process. The rest is up to the service you are trying to join.

    The medical records and the doctor's recommendation go to the recruiting commander (or his/her designated representative) for the service you're applying to join. The commander/representative decides whether or not to request a medical waiver. In making this decision, the commander/representative considers the doctor's recommendation, along with two additional factors:

    1. Is the recruit *EXCEPTIONALLY* qualified, otherwise? (ASVAB scores, college credits, physical fitness, foreign languages, etc.)

    2. How are current recruiting goals? How bad does that particular branch of the service need your particular warm body at this particular point in time?

    If the commander decides to take a chance and ask for a waiver, where it goes from that point depends on the branch of the service you're joining (see the bottom of the medical standards page ). However, the form and records have several layers of military medical officials to be reviewed by.  Each doctor reviews it and recommends approval or disapproval until it finally falls into the hands of a high-ranking doctor (O-6 or above) who makes the ultimate decision.

    If the Medical Waiver is disapproved, then that's the end of the road for any chance you have of joining that branch of service. There are no appeals to medical waiver disapproval (the waiver process *is* the appeal).

    How Long Does a Waiver Take to Get Approved?

    There is simply no way to guess how long it will take a waiver request to make it through the approval process. Different waivers have different levels of review and approval. For example, a waiver for too many traffic tickets may be approved (depending on the service) by the commander of the recruiting squadron.

    However, a waiver for more serious offenses may have to go all the way up the chain to the "big chief" of recruiting for the entire service. A medical waiver usually must go all the way up to the service's Surgeon General's Office. A couple of things to remember:

    (1) The folks who review/approve the waivers have other duties to perform, as well. Your waiver may not be a priority when it comes to these other duties.

    (2) You're not the only child on the playground when it comes to waivers. Hundreds of other waivers are going through the process, as well, and every one of them must be evaluated individually.

      Remember, if you require a waiver, that means that you are disqualified for military service. The waiver procedure is the process of you "begging" the military to make an exception in your particular case.

      Contacting Your Congress Person

      Under the law and DOD regulations, the individual service has the absolute right to decide whether or approve or disapprove medical waivers, depending on the current "needs of the service." A Congressional inquiry won't change anything.

      Waiver approval/disapproval is only applicable for that particular branch of service. If your waiver is disapproved by the Navy, for example, you can walk across the hall to the Army recruiting office, and it's possible that the Army would give favorable consideration for a waiver. Conversely, if the Navy approves a medical waiver, you could not use that waiver to join the Army.

      If a medical condition is diagnosed after one is on active duty (assuming it's not a pre-existing condition that the member lied about, which is an entirely different story), the Military isn't going to discharge them unless a ​Medical Evaluation Board determines the member can't perform his/her duties.