A person living with diabetes may be interested in joining the United States Armed Forces. However, the U.S. military currently considers diabetes to be a disqualifying health condition.
Diabetes describes a group of endocrine and metabolic disorders that impair the body’s ability to process blood sugar. The three most common types of diabetes are type 1, type 2, and gestational. These conditions typically involve a medical regimen to help a person keep their blood glucose within a target range.
Each branch of the U.S. military has similar entry requirements. To enlist in the U.S. military, a person must pass a number of tests, including a military entrance medical exam. At this point, a person will need to declare any health conditions, some of which may disqualify them from entering the military.
Here is a review of the eligibility criteria for joining the military and a look at the other career options a person living with diabetes may consider.
Can you join the military?
To join the U.S. military, a person must meet certain requirements. These standards vary slightly among the different branches of the armed forces. However, they typically involve various tests to measure an applicant’s aptitude against the standards that the Department of Defense (DoD) and its service branches set. This enlistment process is known as the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS).
As part of MEPS, a person must bring medical records and undergo a medical examination. The DoD provides a list of disqualifying health conditions, which includes all types of diabetes. Specifically, it lists the following exclusion criteria:
- a history of diabetes mellitus
- a history of unresolved pre-diabetes within the last 2 years
- a history of gestational diabetes
- glycosuria — meaning high levels of sugar in the urine — that is associated with impaired glucose metabolism or kidney problems
A person living with diabetes may apply for a military medical waiver. This refers to a document that requests an exception in a particular case. However, this will rarely receive approval.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with a disability to ensure equal opportunities. However, although this federal civil rights law protects civilian DoD employees, it does not apply to the military.
A Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) program exists, which protects people from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. However, it does not apply to individuals with disabilities. Regulations state that military positions are exempt from this rule due to the physical requirements of the role and the military’s statutory authority to require certain physical standards.
Can they serve in the Department of Defense?
Although an individual living with diabetes is subject to discriminatory medical standards that disqualify them from a military position, they are eligible for civilian positions within the DoD. Under the Rehabilitation Act, the DoD must adopt a non-discriminatory policy for all civilian employees and applicants, which includes roles in entities that receive DoD funding.
The DoD civilian Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) program ensures that a person will not receive unfair treatment due to their disability. This refers to all aspects of employment, including hiring, pay, job assignments, training, and promotions.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guarantees that employers avoid policies or practices that exclude people living with diabetes from certain jobs. Instead, they should assess each person’s ability to perform a particular role with or without reasonable accommodations.
What if a person receives a diagnosis after joining the military?
Diabetes may disqualify a person from joining the military, but developing the condition while serving is not grounds for disqualification. If a person in the military receives a diagnosis of diabetes, they must undergo an individual assessment, known as a Medical Evaluation Board (MEB), to demonstrate that they can continue to meet medical standards.
The MEB may use standards of retention to help determine whether an active service member with diabetes can continue serving. These standards consider a variety of factors and may also require input from the commanding officer and an endocrinologist. This assessment may also help establish whether the individual with diabetes receives clearance for deployment to all or only some areas worldwide.
A 2018 study notes the need for a medical team to evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis but concludes that it is possible to deploy soldiers with type 1 diabetes safely. Similarly, another 2018 study involving Air Force personnel with diabetes found that those with good markers of control, such as an A1C score of less than 7%, were able to maintain the successful management of their diabetes during deployment.
A 2019 study also concludes that service members meeting adequate glycemic targets are able to keep their A1C score stable during active service, providing further evidence that the military can safely deploy individuals with diabetes.
Other career considerations
As certain discriminatory obstacles may make it difficult to join the military, a person with diabetes may wish to consider other career choices. Under the Rehabilitation Act, laws and regulations protect people living with diabetes from discrimination and unfair treatment.
Although living with diabetes should not disqualify certain career paths, some employers may require people to undergo medical evaluations to display their ability to manage their
blood sugar levels effectively. Other careers that they may consider include:
- law enforcement officers
- some aviation roles, such as a flight instructor
- commercial driver
At present, the DoD considers diabetes to be a disqualifying condition, preventing someone from becoming an active military member. Although laws exist to protect people living with diabetes from discrimination, the military is exempt from these rules.
However, these laws do apply to civilian positions within the DoD, which cannot discriminate against a person and deny them employment due to their condition. Additionally, if a person receives a diabetes diagnosis after joining the military, they may be able to remain in active service. In these cases, a person will undergo a medical evaluation to confirm that they can manage the condition and continue to fulfill the demands of their military role.
medically reviewed on August 16, 2022