The Pentagon’s new recruitment policy is a disaster

Military recruiting is down sharply. More than half of adults under 30 years hold a negative view of the military. White progressives are least likely to volunteer. If the freefall is not arrested, a draft will be necessary.

Equally disturbing, the Department of Defense has undercut its own recruiting base. For 50 years, noncommissioned officers have tirelessly recruited our force, testing fitness and intellect firsthand. Recruiters were empowered to exercise judgment on the other bureaucratic requirements, including a 59-page health order, subject to a final group examination by military doctors inclined to let the determined volunteers serve.

The Pentagon has shifted judgment from our recruiters to an electronic screening system inaptly named “Military Health System Genesis,” instantly shrinking the recruiting pool. Genesis is an invasive magnifying glass that scours the cloud, highlighting doctor visits and prescriptions back to childhood. Understaffed health units — mostly civilians today — must investigate all the red flags. This is the equivalent of ordering a small police force to interrogate every speeding driver. The DoD additionally banned group physicals for fear of body-shaming. Instead of examining a dozen recruits in 15 minutes, doctors now take up to 90 minutes to complete individual interrogations.

The bureaucratic result was predictable. Genesis’s perverse incentive system has resulted in risk aversion among the health screeners, who demand that recruits spend time and money tracking down amplifying evidence, from retired doctors to fifth-grade prescriptions. The processing time for acceptances has doubled. Tens of thousands of other dispirited volunteers file appeals, drop out of the queue or are altogether disqualified. The armed services now override doctor refusals for one out of six recruits.

This is clear evidence that regulations have replaced commonsense. Genesis should be removed from the recruiting process before it does further damage.

The military never wanted Genesis. It was imposed to minimize the number of soldiers who lost duty time to preexisting conditions, which contributed to ballooning Veterans Affairs payments after service. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress dramatically expanded VA eligibility. 15 percent of WWII veterans received disability benefits; 43 percent of post-9/11 veterans receive payments, at higher disability ratings.

What changed? Troops who are injured in combat and training, or debilitated after long laborious careers, remain undercompensated. Those who briefly serve stateside and invoke preexisting traumas receive too much. This is a thorny differentiation problem that our generals have refused to tackle. Restricting upstream entry — and greatly increasing recruiting costs — to reduce downstream VA payments is self-defeating.

Our senior service leaders have been reluctant to complain — a $5 billion program will have that effect. Fortunately, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are investigating, asking, among other questions, whether all this red tape is causing some healthy applicants to drop out of the recruitment process altogether.

That depends on the definition of healthy. The DoD lists over 500 disqualifying conditions. For example, asthma has spiked over the last two decades and is the most common condition among Olympic athletes, with rates approaching 25 percent in cardiovascular sports. Clinging to caricatures of easily manageable conditions, the DoD disqualifies thousands who would serve at the highest physical levels.

Genesis is also biased against athletes. Teen athletes are injured at rates three to five times higher than their sedentary peers, triggering additional screening. 25 percent of special operations troops are injured each year; most have athletic backgrounds. Are they disqualified? The result of this perverse system is that an overweight high school dropout is accepted, while a top collegiate athlete with normal sports injuries is rejected before being examined.

Genesis goes well beyond eradicating the American tradition of permitting the impaired to get into the fight, as Audie Murphy and John F. Kennedy did. Had Genesis been back-tested on the all-volunteer force of the past three decades, tens of thousands who performed superbly in stressful physical levels would have been barred from entry.

The service chiefs and service secretaries must present a unified front and remove Genesis from the recruiting ecosystem. Health requirements must be replaced by a simple, modern standard based on performance. We no longer have the luxury of stapling restriction upon restriction to winnow a volunteer overflow. Finally, recruiters must be given back latitude to use their hard-earned experience to detect who will perform well. It’s time to get back to commonsense at the grassroots, which the military-industrial bureaucracy seeks to stifle.

Owen West is a former assistant secretary of defense for special operations and served two tours in Iraq with the Marines.

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