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Shannon DesrosiersTom WooLauren MaloneKyle Neering
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The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Accession Policy, together with the Office of Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management, asked CNA to identify and document the following:

     1. The Services’ policies, practices, challenges, successes, and recommendations for both screening applicants who require enlistment waivers and separating members early

     2. How enlistment waivers are being used, and which are particularly risky

     3. A tool that commanders can use to predict probability of success with/without a waiver

     4. The historical basis for the 180-day entry-level status (ELS) definition, whether evidence suggests it needs to change, and how changing it would affect veteran benefits

     5. The conditions for which CnD (i.e., condition, not a disability) should be and is used

     6. The reasons why members separate early, and the predictors of early separation

This report answers all but question 3 via literature/policy reviews and subject matter expert discussions. The second report empirically answers questions 2, 3, and 6.

Enlistment waivers

Pre-2008 Service waivers that were particularly risky

Prior to 2008, waiver criteria differed by Service, and no common Department of Defense (DoD) waivers existed. From the pre-2008 literature, it appears that drug and medical Service waivers were used in accordance with their riskiness, but misconduct and dependent Service waivers were not. We would have expected misconduct waivers to be used less often, given their high risk, and dependent waivers to be used more often, given their low risk. However, the dependent waiver population is likely not large.

In nearly all cases where a significant relationship was found in the literature, waiver status was rarely associated with more than a 5 percent increase in the likelihood of an adverse outcome. The only exception was Drug and Alcohol Test (DAT) waivers, which were associated with an 8–15 percent increase in attrition. Despite the adverse waiver effects, other traits, such as having less than a high school degree, were a stronger signal of adverse effects. Prior research shows that recruits with two waivers were not more likely to attrite than those with a single waiver. Being male or accessing at a rank above E-1 mitigated the waiver attrition risk, and being less educated or scoring lower on the Armed Forces Qualification Test aggravated it.

DoD waivers introduced in 2008

In 2008, DoD waivers were introduced for medical, drug, dependency, and conduct, with quarterly reporting requirements and standardized terminology: Service waivers were to be called exceptions to policy (ETPs). For example, before 2008, Service drug waivers were strictest in the Marine Corps, required for even one instance of marijuana use, compared with 11 instances in the Navy. In 2008, the Office of the Secretary of Defense introduced a common DoD drug waiver for applicants who test positive on the DAT. The Service drug waiver criteria are still in place but now are called Service ETPs. Overall, the ETP criteria seem to be strictest in the Marine Corps, moderate in the Navy, and least strict and often approaching the DoD waiver criteria in the Army and Air Force. Twelve years later, a systematic review of enlistment waivers across Services now is possible, which our second report conducts.

Early separations

Separation authority and process

Per DoD and Service policy, commanders with special-court-martial convening authority have separation authority. The process to separate members includes formally counseling and affording the opportunity to overcome deficiencies for those with certain separation reasons and initiating the notification or administrative board procedures for members not able to overcome their deficiencies or who do not require counseling.

Characterizations of service

There are six administrative separation characterizations: three are termed characterized (Honorable, General (Under Honorable Conditions), and Under Other than Honorable Conditions), and three are uncharacterized (entry-level separation, void enlistment, and dropping from the rolls). Two punitive separations are awarded by court-martial—bad conduct and dishonorable. Uncharacterized entry-level separations are used when the separation process is initiated while a member is in ELS.

ELS definition

ELS is defined as the first 180 days of continuous active military service. We conclude that the establishment of ELS at 180 days in 1982 was purely based on the accrual of veterans’ benefits, not entry-level training (ELT) length. The link to veterans’ benefits is evidenced by the Army’s Trainee Discharge Program policy, established in 1973, which explicitly directed the completion of separations before the 180th day of active duty to preclude the accrual of veterans’ benefits. We determined that, at least for the Marine Corps (whose historical and current ELT lengths we were able to obtain), the average ELT length in 1984 was longer than 180 days (257 days), and the percentage of enlisted entry-level occupations over 180 days has increased over time (from 70 to 81 percent between 1984 and 2019).

Erroneous/fraudulent entry and failed procurement standards

From FY 2005 to FY 2019, the most commonly used uncharacterized separation reasons across Services were CnD, entry-level performance and conduct (ELPC), erroneous entry, and disability. Disqualifying conditions known to the recruit and deliberately concealed at enlistment are considered fraudulent, while those unknown to the recruit are considered erroneous. Nevertheless, it appears that erroneous/fraudulent entry can be used interchangeably with failed medical/physical procurement standards (which is a Servicespecific, but not a DoD, reason) because, at least in the Navy, their definitions overlap. Of these three separation reasons, the Army and Air Force primarily use failed procurement standards, the Navy uses erroneous entry, and the Marine Corps uses fraudulent entry.

ELPC and CnD

It also appears that ELPC (failure to adapt) and CnD reasons can be used interchangeably because, at least in the Marine Corps, their definitions overlap for mental health conditions (adjustment disorder, in particular). Of these two separation reasons, the Army primarily uses ELPC, the Navy increasingly uses both ELPC and CnD, the Air Force uses ELPC less and CnD more, and the Marine Corps does the opposite (uses ELPC more and CnD less). ELPC is to be used in ELS when a member is unqualified for service because of lack of capability, lack of reasonable effort, failure to adapt, or minor disciplinary infractions. CnD is to be used for conditions not constituting a physical disability that interfere with duty.

The Services said that they primarily use CnD for adjustment disorder. In 2013, facilitated by a lack of DoD policy and oversight, Navy medical was using CnD to avoid the disability evaluation system—as a faster way to separate those with medical conditions who should have received a disability rating with compensation. DoD policy that attempted to fix this in 2014 may have exacerbated it by not providing mutually exhaustive options. Since 2013, CnD use has increased, except in the Marine Corps, where it has fallen. Navy and Marine Corps policy may have fixed this in 2018 by providing mutually exhaustive options and requiring CnD recommendations to be reviewed by a Medical Evaluation Board because, at that point, Navy CnD use began to fall (and Marine Corps CnD use continued to fall). DoD finds this definition acceptable, as long as it can be defended.

Service opinions on extending ELS

The Air Force and Marine Corps sections with whom we spoke were universal in their wishes for ELS to be extended past 180 days. The only Service section with whom we spoke that did not believe that ELS should be extended was the Army G-1. We were not successful in receiving a response from the Navy. The most consistent length to which the Services would like ELS extended was to the end of ELT.

Implications of extending ELS

If ELS were moved to the end of ELT, members in occupations with relatively short pipelines (whose ELT ends before day 180) would gain benefits (dental, preseparation counseling, home loans, federal veteran employment/training, and federal veteran preference), while those in occupations with relatively long pipelines would lose these benefits. The gains and losses would go to those who separate between the current and any new ELS definition if the benefit policy also is moved to the end of ELT and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not make determinations. If the benefit policy is kept at 180 days or if the VA makes determinations, the losses disappear and there is no impact. The VA makes determinations when a member without the required characterization for benefits applies for such benefits. In addition, Marines with relatively long pipelines would lose partial Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits if they separated between the current and any new ELS definition, whereas there would be no impact on Marines with relatively short pipelines or on Army, Navy, or Air Force members.

We assert that, overall, extending ELS to the end of ELT would be a net positive for the Services and marginally performing members and a net negative for the VA, states, and members who would have earned Honorable discharges, unless the latter receives eligibility determinations (in which case they would lose no benefits). If DoD wants to extend ELS, how it does so depends on its goal. If its goal is to make policies internally consistent, it may want to update benefit policies to coincide with the new ELS definition, and accept a loss of benefits. If its goal is to ensure no loss of veteran benefits, it may want to keep benefit policies at 180 days.

Next steps

We continue the empirical analysis in our second report, examining how waivers are used, which are risky, the reasons why members separate early, and the early separation predictors. We also create the tool to predict probability of success with/without a waiver.

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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited. Public Release. 10/2/2020


  • Pages: 124
  • Document Number: DRM-2020-U-024781-Final
  • Publication Date: 10/2/2020
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