Military Entrance Processing Stations, also known as MEPS, are the gateway to the United States military for thousands of new recruits. MEPS falls under the jurisdiction of the United States Military Entrance Processing Command (USMEPCOM). The agency has its headquarters in Chicago, Illinois but there are more than 60 MEPS facilities across the United States including St. Louis, Tampa, and Memphis.
A Brief History Of MEPS
Some who chronicle the history of the military entrance processing station will look as far back as the American Revolution. Naturally MEPS did not formally exist back then in a manner we would recognize today, but there was some form of induction for the troops who wanted to become part of the fight against England.
Some of the earliest attempts to screen new recruits echo what is done today. During the Civil War medical doctors were required to examine all new troops; there were few standardized procedures or criteria, though there were rules about “acceptable circumferences” for chest measurements, height, etc.
Hardly the most scientific screening process imaginable–some sources report Army doctors being required to note “below average height” as a possible indicator that the recruit or conscript was prone to disease. But these procedures were a crude precursor to later, more scientific examinations.
The real history of what we understand today as MEPS starts circa World War One; A declaration of war signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 pushed America’s military into a different phase of its evolution.
According to one MEPS history guide, (written by Gaylan Johnson who wrote about MEPS history for USMEPCOM Public Affairs) by the time America had finished with World War Two, the military entrance processing system had become among the largest selection and classification systems for human labor ever seen at the time.
The two World Wars, plus Korea and Vietnam, featured some form of a military draft; this made MEPS facilities a source of dread for those of college age who were required to sign up for the draft. By the time the all-volunteer military was started in 1973, MEPS would still carry a bit of a hangover from the draft era–recruits were hustled through dingy screening and exam rooms and got treatment some felt was little better than being herded like cattle.
Later revisions of MEPS policies and procedures sought to change this, and in contemporary times USMEPCOM literature includes talk of a “red carpet policy” toward new recruits and a definite shift away from the earlier cattle-call style treatment new arrivals got in the past. The 21st Century MEPS building that a new recruit visits will represent a vastly different experience than in decades past.
How MEPS Works
You don’t start your military journey at MEPS–you start by talking to a recruiter. MEPS is later-all new recruits ship out to basic training by way of MEPS, and your recruiter may or may not take you to a USMEPCON facility for a variety of reasons–some newcomers ship out right away and don’t get the “preview” of these facilities.
USMEPCOM literature advises that some may be permitted to go thru the MEPS processing experience then go back home to wait for their ship date to Boot Camp; others may go to MEPS and depart immediately. It all depends on what you and your recruiter work out.
Others enroll in some version of a Delayed Enlistment program and may see MEPS more than once before their final ship date. The location of the recruiter’s office to the MEPS office may play a big role in this. In any case, those joining the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, or Coast Guard should expect to, at the very least, ship out to basic training from a MEPS station.
If your recruiter has scheduled you for a visit to MEPS that does not include departure for basic training, there are multiple reasons why you might go. They include:
- Taking or retaking the ASVAB (depending on circumstances)
- Getting a preview of what the experience is like (some recruiters will opt for this, some won’t)
- Getting career field information or helping a recruit enter a unique career field
- Any required paperwork or follow ups
Some who want to join the military may require waivers for legal run-ins, education, or other issues. A visit to MEPS may be needed to further such causes. Or they may not, depending on circumstances. The “pre-ship” visit isn’t terribly unusual but it’s not something all recruits can expect to get. Many will see MEPS for the first time when they ship out to basic training.
What To Expect At MEPS
When you depart your hometown to the MEPS station to ship out to basic training, you should expect a journey that can last up to two days. You arrive at MEPS, receive a briefing about what your rights and responsibilities are, and are given instructions about where you can go, curfews (yes, curfews apply), restrictions, and warnings about conduct between the time you arrive and ship-out time.
Those who journey to a MEPS center may have to take a train or bus; you will likely be told what form of transportation you will take and a ticket will be obtained for you if the recruiter is not personally taking you to the facility. When you go to MEPS before basic training, you should expect a two-day experience that may include the following:
- Administration of the ASVAB
- Extensive physical exams including blood work, range-of-motion tests, etc.
- Some recruits may need to discuss military career field options at this stage
- Other recruits may not get a job classification at this point and enter military service in an “open general” status with a job to be determined later
- Fingerprinting and background checks
- Administration of the Oath of Enlistment
Some MEPS experiences are shorter than two days, others longer. One important thing to remember about processing through MEPS is that the military staff there may or may not know about any prior arrangements you have made with your recruiter, especially where military job specialties, departure dates, and other details go.
Be sure you have all relevant paperwork showing what you have already worked out with your recruiter–have all your arrangements in writing and handy should you need them.
What You Should Bring To MEPS
Treat MEPS like any job interview and bring your Social Security Card, Birth Certificate, and Drivers License or state-issued photo ID card. You should bring your prescription glasses or contacts, avoid wearing clothing with images or phrases that may be considered offensive (this is a problem at MEPS occasionally, believe it or not), and do not bring valuables.
When you ship out to Boot Camp, your civilian clothes, personal items, and your mobile devices are subject to being placed in storage once you arrive at Basic Training–assume that none of what you hand-carry to MEPS will be accessible once you arrive for training until your Training Instructor says you can access it or there are other provisions made for you in the training environment.
Taking The ASVAB At MEPS
In some cases you may be required to take or retake the ASVAB or CAT-ASVAB while processing; however, if you have already done so, be sure to let the MEPS staff know as you may be exempt from this requirement (depending on circumstances). Those who do take or retake the ASVAB at MEPS will be informed of their scores and how they affect their career choices.
The MEPS Physical
Be prepared for a complete physical, though not all at once and not necessarily in private. New recruits should be prepared to remove some or all of their clothing during this process.
You may be required to, as a group, do mobility and range-of-motion tests that involve a doctor observing your body (male recruits may be asked to strip to their undergarments for these tests) to observe physical defects, mobility limitations, etc. Female recruits are administered a private pregnancy test.
You will also be administered urine and blood tests, drug and alcohol tests, eye and ear exams, and more. You should be given a medical exam/interview and if specialized tests are needed, these may be ordered or performed on an as-needed basis. If you have a medical condition requiring a waiver for entry into the military, you must have this waiver prior to this process.
What To Know About Taking The Oath Of Enlistment At MEPS
Taking the oath of enlistment is one of the biggest moments a new recruit has while in-processing. It’s a weighty moment for many, and can get a bit emotional. But there is a very important dimension to this no new recruit should enter military service without considering–taking the oath means you are officially entering the United States Military and becoming subject to the Uniform Code Of Military Justice.
That’s a big deal, but some new recruits mistakenly believe that taking the oath means you are “In the Army now” and can’t change your mind. How true is this?
The fact is, some recruits don’t make it through Boot Camp. They wash out, they have physical issues that prevent them from completing the training, or there are other issues. Some simply arrive at basic training and realize they made a mistake in joining the military.
Whatever reason for not completing the training, there is no shame in making the decision to leave boot camp if the new recruit has truly made a mistake and isn’t just suffering a case of a rough adjustment from civilian life to a military career.
We say all that to inform new recruits that in spite of taking the oath of enlistment, you are not legally bound to complete your military training. In fact, until you graduate from Basic Training, you have the ability to stop at any time. It’s not easy to do, and the Training Instructors will definitely try to talk you out of doing so. And in some cases, that’s absolutely the correct approach–some simply aren’t cut out for professional military service.
But in other cases, it may be a case of the recruit and drill instructor trying to decide if that scenario applies, or if the recruit simply has “growing pains.” The takeaway here? You can still leave if you haven’t graduated basic training. You will have to follow the procedure it takes to separate in this manner–you don’t get to simply walk out the front gate–but the process can and does happen. Don’t expect to go home immediately, but do expect to discuss your situation and choices with the Training Instructors assigned to you.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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