WASHINGTON — The Army’s decision to allow people with a history of self-mutilation, bipolar disorder, depression and drug and alcohol abuse to seek waivers to enlist in the service drew a sharp, bipartisan rebuke on Tuesday when Sen. John McCain said he was prepared to put a hold on nominations to Pentagon posts until the Army explained the policy.

McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, upbraided the nominee for Army general counsel, James McPherson, saying he and the committee members learned about the change in policy in a report by USA TODAY on Monday.

“If you took a poll of this committee right now I doubt if you’d find a single one who would be approving of this practice, which we now find out about reading the daily newspaper,” McCain said. 

Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the committee from Rhode Island, said he concurred with McCain’s concerns.

“We cannot sacrifice quality for quantity,” Reed said. “It’s that simple. We have to do both and we have to work together to get it done.”

McCain also blasted the Trump administration and Pentagon for failing to keep Congress informed of its actions.

“It’s a problem that, frankly, this committee is having with this administration,” McCain said. “We should have been told about this before it showed up in a USA TODAY article.”

Monday’s report, based on internal Army documents, showed that the Army in August reversed a policy that had prevented people with mental health issues, including “self-mutilation,” from seeking waivers to join. The burden of proof is on the applicant to provide a “clear and meritorious case” for the waiver, according to one document. 

The Army acknowledged in a statement to USA TODAY that the prohibition on waivers had been “rescinded” in August based primarily on better access to the medical records of applicants. The ban on waivers had been in place since 2009 when it was instituted during a spike in suicides among service members.

“Are we seeing the same movie over and over again, Mr. McPherson?” McCain asked.

McPherson responded: “Senator, unfortunately it would seem that way.”

Risks involved in waivers

The Army, in a statement released Monday night and later sent to USA TODAY, made reference to the USA TODAY report, calling it “inaccurate.” Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army’s top personnel officer, said the Army had not changed its medical entrance standards, saying it had made a “simple, administrative change” that had been “substantially misinterpreted.”

The Army said it had changed the approval process for the waivers. Previously they had to be granted by Army headquarters in Washington. Now they can be granted by the Army Recruiting Command, Seamands said.

McPherson, however, called the story “troubling.” He vowed to seek answers about it.

“I believe that history has shown that when you bring in individuals through a waiver process there’s a risk involved in that,” McPherson said. “A risk that they might not turn out to be exemplary soldiers.”

The Army declined to say if any waivers have been issued since August, a fact that rankled McCain and prompted his threat to halt Senate confirmations for key spots at the Pentagon. He read lengthy excerpts of the story to McPherson. 

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“The United States Army will not respond to us as to how many waivers have been issued since the policy was changed,” McCain said. “What you do to us here is you face us with an unacceptable option, and that is, to get the information, which you just verbally heard…is to stop confirming people for jobs.”

McCain went on, at times incredulously, wondering why the Army would rescind its ban.

“Self-mutilation is something that…it comes home to roost,” McCain said.

He promised to pursue legislation to prevent the Army from allowing the waivers.

 

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