Joining the United States military can be a life-altering decision that can open up many new doors for your future. It’s also not a decision to be taken lightly, and if you’re determined to pursue a future career in the military, then you may have a difficult, but rewarding, path ahead of you.
However, the military doesn’t just accept anyone that is willing to join. Recruits have to be able to pass rigorous physical tests, be medically healthy and of a certain age, be mentally fit, have no financial problems (sometimes they even require a good credit score, and may perform a credit check), and pass a certain code of moral integrity. Throughout all branches of the military — Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and the Coast Guard — moral character is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, this means getting into the military with a criminal record is no easy task.
Luckily, it’s not impossible to join the military with a felony or misdemeanor conviction, but it does add an extra layer of difficulty to being accepted. Some charges may permanently exempt you from military service, while others may be able to be excused through the use of a waiver.
Let’s see what you can do to better your chances of joining the military, despite any past criminal history you may have.
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Can You Join the Military With a Felony?
Moral standards are extremely important to the military, and for good reason. If it weren’t for their strict standards, there would be higher chances of desertion, disciplinary issues, security risks, or even disruption of order. Unfortunately, having a felony conviction on your criminal record can come off as a major red flag to military recruiters. With a felony — the most grievous charge for a crime — it may disqualify you from service.
There are certainly some types of felony convictions that will immediately disqualify you, and that won’t be up for negotiation with a recruiter or with a waiver. They typically revolve around violence or misuse of weapons, including:
- Assault with a Dangerous Weapon
- Breaking and Entering
- Credit Card Fraud
- Driving Under the Influence (multiple charges)
- Kidnapping (including parental kidnap of a child)
- Manslaughter or Murder
- Multiple Felony Charges
- Spousal Abuse
- Statutory Rape, Sexual Assault, or Rape
Typically, the more grievous the crime, the less likely you will be accepted into the military. Additionally, if you’re aiming for a job that requires a high level of security clearance, almost any criminal conviction will disqualify you from those positions.
Eligible for a Waiver
However, if your felony offense doesn’t fall under one of these categories and you’re aiming for entry-level positions, you may have a chance of being accepted into the military if you remain honest and positive. Recruiters are mostly interested in how you’ve adapted to civilian life since leaving incarceration and successfully fulfilling your parole, so older convictions often hold less weight than recent convictions.
You will still need to interview and request a waiver before you can hear the official word if you’ve been accepted. Some of the convictions that may be eligible for a waiver include:
- Civil Offenses
- Minor Charges or Infractions (Non-Traffic Related)
- Misdemeanor Convictions
- Or a combination of misdemeanor and minor charges
- Singular Felony — with no other criminal history or charges
Can You Join the Military With a Misdemeanor?
Misdemeanor convictions are not as serious as felonies, but can still hamper your chances of being accepted into the military. Just as with felony convictions, the more violent and grevious the crime, the less likely you are to be accepted. Positions that require a high-level security clearance will also be out of reach for those with a misdemeanor conviction.
Luckily, misdemeanors are reserved for crimes that are less serious than felonies, and recruiters are aware of that fact. Modern social standards can also have an effect on how misdemeanors are viewed by military officials — especially in the case of past cannabis or minor drug convictions, as legality around cannabis is slowly evolving. If you’re honest and positive about your past experience, they may be more receptive to granting you a potential waiver to enlist.
However, recruiters are going to be focused more on your moral character now: both how you’ve adjusted to civilian life after leaving judicial control (probation, jail, etc), and what lessons you’ve learned to help yourself become a better person despite your conviction. Throughout the background check process, they may learn more about your conviction, but just like with a normal job interview, remaining honest and positive during the interview is key to convincing them that you’ve overcome and learned from your past mistakes.
The military also has special access to past sealed and expunged records. Unlike your typical background check, they will be able to see all your past convictions — even juvenile convictions that were later sealed. Because of this, you should still mention your past convictions to military recruiters.
Luckily, going through the process of expungement can show that your character has changed since your conviction. The process for expungement is different in every state, but typically requires completion of probation, parole, jail, and paying all associated fines for your charges. Additionally, expunging also shows that you are willing and able to make permanent adjustments in your life to no longer perform criminal activity — which can be helpful when explaining your past to a military recruiter.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that an expunged or sealed record does not exempt your criminal record from appearing on a military-level background check.
Requesting a Waiver for a Criminal Offense or Conviction
Because all branches of the military are invested in moral character, any misdemeanor or felony conviction on your criminal record will need to be explained and potentially waived before you can enlist. Keep in mind, the military is often at capacity, meaning they have met their yearly goal of expected number of new recruits, so they have the liberty to be more selective when at capacity with those applying to enter. However, in times of war or conflict, they may be more flexible to accepting those with a criminal history.
Even if you’re not forthcoming about your criminal history, they will perform a background check before offering you a position. If you lie, they will find out, and you will be immediately disqualified, and may even be charged with “fraudulent enlistment.” Your chances of being accepted are much higher if you’re honest about your criminal record.
Each branch will have their own interview process, but often times they are very similar to a typical job interview. If the military is interested in what you have to offer, they will call you in for an interview.
Honesty is always the best policy, but that is especially true with the military. You will always have a better shot in being enlisted if you’re honest about your criminal history.
Additionally, you don’t want to make any excuses for your conviction; simply state the facts and how it has influenced and shaped your character for the better. Later, when they process your waiver, they may look into the specifics of your case, such as the “who, what, where, when, and why” of your conviction.
Once you’ve told the interviewer about your convictions, they will be able to let you know if your conviction is eligible for a waiver. This is a judgement call that is up to the military’s discretion, and is not eligible for dispute — even if you have stellar recommendations.
Typically with a waiver, they will request letters of recommendation from responsable community leaders that can attest to your character and suitability for enlistment. Although friends may hold you in high regard, these letters should come from well-respected members of your community, such as ministers, school administrators, and law enforcement officials.
If you receive a waiver, you can submit it along with your letters of recommendation, you will then have to wait to hear if you’ve been accepted until after the waiver has been processed. Once the waiver is accepted, then you may also be accepted and enlisted into the military.
Criminal convictions can easily hamper your life, but they aren’t always a permanent sentence. By remaining positive, honest, and forthcoming, you can showcase how your life has changed, and how you’re ready to prove yourself to those willing to give you a chance.
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