skip to main content
ArticlePodcastReportQuick LookVideotriangleplus sign dropdown arrow Case Study All Newsfeed
Shannon DesrosiersKyle Neering
Download full report

As the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) seeks to develop and maintain a ready and lethal force, policies related to enlistment waivers, entry-level status (ELS) length, and administrative separations are key components of its strategy. Readiness is preserved by maintaining high standards of performance, conduct, and discipline. Enlistment waivers promote readiness by ensuring that the Services are able to recruit enough qualified and deserving personnel to achieve authorized force levels. ELS length and administrative separation policies promote readiness by providing an orderly means to discharge those found to be unsuitable to serve, and by emphasizing honorable service.

In this light, two offices within OSD Personnel and Readiness (P&R)—the Offices of the Under Secretary of Defense for Accession Policy (AP) and Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management (OEPM)—asked CNA to evaluate the Services’ policies, practices, and successes for determining suitability for service at accession (enlistment waivers) and in service (ELS length and reasons for early separation). In this report, the second of two, we (1) determine the probability of, and reasons for, separation among those who access with enlistment waivers, (2) examine the arguments for and against extending ELS, as well as inconsistencies in ELS separation reasons, and (3) make recommendations.

Our methodological approach includes a literature and policy review, subject matter expert (SME) discussions, and analysis of nearly 12 years of Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) personnel and standardized waiver code data on enlisted Active Component accessions.

Enlistment waivers and separation outcomes


During the normal recruiting process, the Services must consider and access some applicants who initially do not meet all Service enlistment requirements. By requiring enlistment waivers for such applicants (e.g., those with too many minor dependents, with certain medical conditions, with a record or history of criminal infractions, or who are found to have experimented with illegal drugs), the Department of Defense (DoD) acknowledges that there may be risks inherent in these populations (e.g., a higher likelihood of early separation). However, DoD also allows the Services to consider such recruits who display sufficient mitigating circumstances through a “whole person” review.

In 2008, AP created four DoD-wide enlistment waivers—medical, dependent, conduct, and drug—with quarterly reporting requirements. Before 2008, there were no consistent standardized waiver criteria used across the Services and most waivers were based on Servicespecific standards, many of which now are identified as “exceptions to policy” (ETPs)). For example, Service drug ETPs are strictest in the Marine Corps, and are required for even one instance of marijuana use. By comparison, Navy recruits required a Service drug ETP only after 11 or more instances of drug use. Although Service-level ETPs still exist (and still vary considerably), the 2008 policy established singular definitions for each of the four waiver types that apply to all military recruits, regardless of Service. For example, a drug waiver is only issued to applicants who test positive on the Drug and Alcohol Test (DAT) at the Military Processing Entrance Station (MEPS).

This establishment of consistent waiver definitions across DoD means that consistent enlistment waiver data now have been collected for almost 12 years, making it possible to conduct the first comprehensive cross-Service review of the use and riskiness of DoD enlistment waivers since the new policy was enacted. Thus, we use DMDC data on the last 12 years of DoD accessions, in addition to SME discussions, to address the following questions:

  • What trends in enlistment waivers and separation reasons do we observe?
  • How risky are enlistment waivers, in terms of separation outcomes?
  • Can a waiver risk model help the Services decide which applicants with enlistment waivers to enlist?
Download full report

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


  • Pages: 88
  • Document Number: DRM-2020-U-027316-Final
  • Publication Date: 10/2/2020
Back to Marine Corps and Defense Workforce Program