How to Get a Medical Waiver to Join the Military

Young man talking to doctor about getting a medical waiver for the military.

Ariel Skelley / Getty Images 

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 you can use as a general guide, the Medical Disqualifying Ailments for Military Service form, but every waiver request is evaluated using several individual factors. No two waivers are alike.

Medical Waivers

The Department of Defense (DoD) sets the medical standards for people who wish to join the U.S. military. These standards are the same for all military branches, including the Coast Guard, as the Department of Homeland Security has agreed to use the same standards to make Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) processing easier. 

Beginning the Medical Exam Process

The process starts when you complete the medical pre-screening form at the recruiter's office. The recruiter sends this up to MEPS, asking 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 service branches. 

A doctor at MEPS reviews the form. If there are any potentially disqualifying medical conditions listed, MEPS may contact the recruiter to ensure you bring a copy of your civilian medical records relevant to the condition with you to the examination.

Sometimes the doctor doing the review will determine you have a medical condition that is 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. If this happens, your journey into military service has ended. There is no appeal to this decision. It is technically possible for the recruiting commander of the service you're trying to join to go over MEPS to request a medical waiver from their medical command, but this is rare.

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.

Temporary vs. Permanent Disqualifications

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 might be that you can't enlist with a broken toe, but once it heals, assuming 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 a waiver is recommended in your case. It is the 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 exam or to others, particularly under combat conditions?

Once the doctor makes a recommendation, MEPS is done with the medical waiver process. The rest is up to the service you are trying to join.

Recruiting Commander Decisions

The medical records and the doctor's recommendation go to the recruiting commander (or designated representative) for the service you're applying to join. The commander decides whether to request a medical waiver. In making this decision, the commander considers the doctor's recommendation, along with two additional factors:

1. Is the recruit exceptionally qualified otherwise? (ASVAB scores, college credits, physical fitness, and foreign language fluency could be factors.)

2. Are current recruiting goals being met?

If the commander decides to ask for a waiver, where it goes from that point depends on the branch of the service you're joining. However, several layers of military medical officials review the form and records. Each doctor reviews them 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 denied, 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.

Waiver Approval Timeline

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 people who review/approve the waivers have other duties, so your waiver may not be a priority.
  2. Hundreds of other waivers are going through the process as well, and every application must be evaluated individually.

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

Contacting Your Congressperson

Under the law and DoD regulations, the individual service has the absolute right to decide whether to 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 to that particular branch of service. If the Navy denies your waiver, for example, you can walk across the hall to the Army recruiting office and it's possible the Army might consider and approve 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 you're on active duty, assuming it's not a pre-existing condition that you lied about, the military isn't going to discharge you unless a ​Medical Evaluation Board determines you can't perform your duties.