Despite the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with over 15,000 U.S. troops wounded or injured, the number of soldiers approved for permanent disability retirement has plunged by more than two-thirds since 2001, according to a Government Accountability Office report last year – evidence, say critics, that the Army is systematically and deliberately underrating injured veterans’ conditions to hold down costs.
“These people are being systematically underrated,” Ron Smith, deputy general counsel for Disabled American Veterans, told Army Times. “It’s a bureaucratic game to preserve the budget, and it’s having an adverse affect on service members.”
Numbers of service members in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force approved for temporary or permanent disability retirement have remained nearly constant since 2001, while the Army’s permanent disability numbers dropped from 642 in 2001 to 209 in 2005.
The Army denies intentionally pushing wounded soldiers off the military rolls.
The reasons for the apparent underratings are as complicated as the system itself. Critics note that counselors who advise troops are often insufficiently trained to deal with all the facets of individual cases. Wounded or injured soldiers tend to assume the service will look after their best interests after they’ve served their country on the battlefield.
“Soldiers are trained,” said Smith. “When the evaluation board says, ‘This is what you get,’ the soldiers say, ‘Yes sir.’ A lot of people don’t appeal.”
Those who don’t accept the Army’s first offer face a process characterized by long waits, lost paperwork and, often, years away from home. Hundreds of combat veterans are currently in limbo at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington waiting for their status to be adjudicated.
Soldiers must receive a rating of 30 percent to receive temporary or permanent disability retirement pay, medical benefits, and commissary privileges. A lower rating is rewarded with severance pay but no benefits.
The Department of Veterans Affairs operates a separate disability payment system and many frustrated soldiers turn to that agency where they may receive a higher rating. Accepting VA benefits and rejecting the Army’s disability-retirement offer results in the loss of lifetime commissary and exchange privileges, military health care and other benefits – a significant loss of lifetime income.
Critics note that the reduction in number of soldiers placed on permanent disability retirement was accompanied by a 400 percent increase in soldiers placed on temporary disability between 2001 and 2005. Soldiers on temporary disability must leave convalescence care for 18 months while receiving reduced basic pay. After that period, they are reevaluated and returned to duty, rated for separation from the service if their disability falls below 30 percent, or placed back on temporary disability for an additional 18 months. This process can last five years.
Conditions must be ruled “stable” before the Army will rate soldiers as permanently disabled. Those whose ratings fall below 30 percent and are discharged with severance pay receive no further payments from the military if their conditions subsequently worsen.
“There is absolutely no attempt on the part of the Army or this agency to deny soldiers any disability benefits or to push them off on the VA,” said Col. Andy Buchanan, commander of the the Army’s Physical Disability Agency.
Adjudicators “are committed to ensuring all disability decisions are made fairly and accurately and based on the evidence in the soldier’s medical record,” he said. “We have never received any guidance, official or otherwise, from anywhere within DoD to limit findings for budgetary or other reasons.”
Ellen Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health protection and readiness, told House lawmakers in 2005 the boom in temporary disability ratings was intended to keep troop strength up, saying a premature medical-evaluation board decision could “negatively impact the individual’s ability to continue serving.”
Disabled American Veterans attorney Smith began hearing of discrepancies from service members two years ago who complained they were being underrated by the Army based on the VA Schedule for Rating ? the document used by both the military services and the VA to determine percent-disability status.
“I finally decided to take on a case myself,” Smith said. “It’s been a while since I took a case.”
Smith represented an Army captain whose radial nerve had been destroyed in Iraq, leaving him with the same injury former Sen. Bob Dole received in World War II while fighting in Italy.
The injury, said Smith, was an “easy call” – 70 percent disability. But the captain was offered just 30 percent at his first informal meeting with the medical board. Smith fought the case to 60 percent by taking it to the next level and then to a final appeal.
“His first offer – I couldn’t believe it,” Smith said. “I was just incensed.”
Smith kept pushing. When the Army wouldn’t go above 60 percent, he issued an ultimatum.
“I called the adjutant general and said I wanted a meeting,” adding that if he didn’t get one, he was “going to Congress.'”
Smith met with the Army in January and demanded the Army’s Physical Disability Agency review its records to identify patterns in the determination of ratings and how they compare with the mandates in the VA schedule.
When he receives the Army’s report, he expects to see a pattern showing large percentages of troops with fewer that 20 years of service – the amount needed to qualify for retirement – being rated at under 30 percent and discharged from the service with a lump-sum payment lower than lifetime retirement compensation.
According to the Army’s Physical Disability Agency, only 10 percent of soldiers request a formal board hearing to appeal their ratings.