I graduated from a respected university with a GPA greater than 3.5. I’ve had experience working in a think tank and a government department, spent three years living and working in China, and just finished an internship with a congressman doing defense and China policy. Looking for my next opportunity on LinkedIn, I saw that the Air Force Reserve was looking for intelligence officers. I applied online and a recruiter called me back. I and many of my colleagues figured that with my experience and skills, and my desire to serve my country, I would be a shoe-in for the position. Four letters determined otherwise – ADHD.
ADHD is a treatable mental condition that affects between 4 and 8% of adults. Having ADHD can be a struggle for many people; college graduation rates are less than one-fifth those of the general population age 25 and older. I’ve gotten treatment, medical and non-medical, for my ADHD, and as a result I’ve had a very successful and rich life. So when a boilerplate checklist read by a contractor over the phone deems me unfit for service without even giving me a chance to prove myself, I can’t help but take it personally.
At first glance, it might seem understandable that the military would not want to take in anyone with a history of mental conditions, treatable or not. However, Nidal Hassan, Bradley Manning, and Aaron Alexis all show that the military doesn’t throw out people who showed signs of mental illness after having been accepted into the service. In fact, active service members who develop post-traumatic stress disorder are strongly encouraged to receive treatment while still active. So the military is fine with soldiers who develop mental conditions and get treatment. The military is apparently also fine with soldiers who develop mental conditions and DON’T get treatment. But it’s not fine with a recruit who has a mental condition and is getting treatment? The lesson drawn from this is that had I not had the diagnosis, or more importantly never gotten treatment, I’d have been allowed in.
Worse, even though I’m fully treated for my ADHD, the recruiter told me I’d have to be off my meds for two years before I could apply. So it’s okay to have the condition but not get treatment for it? That truly is crazy. I’m supposed to be certifiably dysfunctional before I’m even given a shot! In the modern age, and with the problems the military is having recruiting and retaining qualified people, this makes no sense. Unlike a frontline soldier who wears glasses that might get knocked off or shattered in combat, my condition cannot suddenly render me unable to do the job asked of me. The military might say my ADHD would be a problem were I ever deployed to a combat zone, but this is for a reservist position as an Air Force intelligence officer!
The government is stigmatizing me just the way it did gay servicemen 20 years ago. Now, when the military is changing its policies vis-a-vis gays, women and religious minorities (beards) serving in the military, it’s still discriminating against me and others with the same condition. If I’m off my medication, I’m not going to shoot my coworkers, leak classified documents to the Russians, or suddenly call myself Chelsea. The treatment for ADHD, a few pills every day, is hardly an “undue hardship” that would reasonably disqualify me for service. A soldier with a cough would be able to get a throat lozenge, would he not? The Air Force really doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
The military is very concerned about service personnel coming back from overseas with psychological problems. It encourages them to seek counseling and if necessary go on medication, promising this won’t affect their careers. Why should those in need of help believe the Air Force if it excludes me before I’m even in?
The Air Force’s policy violates the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act
“prohibits discrimination against qualified employees or job applicants on the basis of their disability…Under the ADA, employers cannot use eligibility standards or qualifications that unfairly screen out people with disabilities and cannot make speculative assumptions about a person’s ability to do a job based on myths, fears, or stereotypes about employees with disabilities. Additionally, employers must make ‘reasonable accommodations’ for employees with disabilities, which means changing the work environment or job duties to eliminate barriers that keep an individual from being able to perform the essential functions of the job.”
What the Air Force did to me is clearly prohibited by the ADA. If I didn’t care about this country and the military, I’d sue. I’ve been incredibly supportive of our military. To be rejected before even being given a chance to prove what an asset I could be to the Air Force and my country makes me a great deal less so.
David Goure is a graduate of George Mason University and recently interned for Congressman Randy Forbes working on China and defense policy.
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