Disability Separation and Retirement From the Military

If you've suffered a serious illness or injury, the military will assess whether you are unfit for service and deserve a disability discharge, with or without benefits.

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The Secretary of each branch of the military service has the authority to find a service member unfit for duty due to a physical or mental disability. Each branch of the military has a Disability Evaluation System (DES) that's used to determine whether an ill or injured service member is fit for continued duty or whether separation for unfitness due to disability (disability discharge) is necessary.

Overview of Disability Separation and Retirement Process

Each branch has their own regulations governing the Disability Evaluation System, but the procedures for evaluating cases for disability separation or requirement are quite similar. The evaluation process includes:

  • Medical Evaluation Board
  • Physical Disability Evaluation Board
  • counseling for the service member, and
  • final approval of the Physical Disability Evaluation Board decision.

Physical and Medical Evaluation Boards in each branch evaluate cases and reach a decision about whether a service member is fit or unfit for continued duty and what type of compensation or benefits they should receive. The Medical Evaluation Board conducts the initial assessment and the Physical Evaluation Board does a comprehensive analysis.

Who Refers You for an Evaluation for Separation or Retirement?

If you are in the Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps, only a medical officer can make a decision to have you evaluated by a Medical Evaluation Board. But in the Army and Coast Guard, this decision can also be made by your Commanding Officer. Most often the evaluation process will be started by a military doctor when you have a condition that isn’t getting better and that might last more than a year.

Your Right to Information

It is the responsibility of Physical Evaluation Board Liaison Officer (PEBLO) to counsel you on actions the PEB may take and what your rights are. PEBLOs are your source of information on what is going on. But bear in mind that it is not their job to advocate for your best interests.

PEBLOs are employed by the military, and information they share with you will not be confidential. With this in mind, many PEBLOs do a fine job of keeping service members informed and educated on the Physical Evaluation Board process. But if you feel you are not being treated fairly, you may wish to consult a military attorney or contact the GI Rights Hotline.

Step 1. Medical Evaluation Board

The first step in the process is a review conducted by the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB). There are often two or more doctors on a Medical Evaluation Board. Members of the MEB review the medical records of the service member and make an initial evaluation of the limitations of an injury or illness on the service members ability to perform their duties.

This is an informal, administrative process without any opportunity for a hearing. Members of the Board review the records and then write up their findings and recommendations. The purpose of this process is to determine if your medical condition requires evaluation by a Physical Disability Evaluation Board. The MEB will either find you are fit to return to duty (perhaps with limitations in what you can do) or whether you must be referred to a Physical Evaluation Board for further determinations about your fitness for duty.

Step 2. Physical Evaluation Board

After an MEB has made findings that a service member is unfit to continue in the service in his or her military occupation, the service member will next be referred to the Physical Evaluation Board (PEB). PEBs have the authority to decide if you are fit or unfit for duty, if you are eligible for disability compensation or medical retirement pay, what disability ratings should be assigned, and whether your disability is combat related or not..

Unfit Determinations

There are four types of unfitness determinations that can be made:

  • unfit and separation without benefits
  • unfit and separation with severance pay
  • unfit and placement on Permanent Disability Retirement List (PDRL), or
  • unfit and placement on Temporary Disability Retirement List (TDRL).

These determinations are made on the basis of whether your disabilities are service-connected and whether your conditions can be expected to change over the next five years, such that a new disability rating may be warranted. No cash benefit of any kind will be provided if you incurred your injury while AWOL or due to your own intentional misconduct or willful neglect.

To find out the criteria for each of these unfit determinations and what benefits come with each level, see Nolo's article on When You Will Be Found Unfit and Separated From the Military.

Physical Evaluation Board Procedure

The first step in the PEB process is informal and is very similar to the Medical Evaluation Board process. Without any hearing, the PEB evaluates your case and writes findings and recommendations about whether you should be found fit or unfit and whether you should receive any pay, and if so, what kind and how much.

You have the right to disagree with the conclusions of the Physical Evaluation Board and request a formal hearing where you can present your arguments. You have the right to have an attorney represent you at this hearing. If you do not disagree, the PEB findings and recommendations are forwarded, as discussed below.

You have the right to submit new evidence during the PEB process.

For more information, read Nolo's article on what to expect at a PEB hearing.

Step 3. Final Approval of PDES Decision

The PEB does not have the authority to make a final decision. PEB findings and recommendations are forwarded to the agency within each branch of the military that has oversight authority over the PEB. This agency reviews your case and checks for any errors of fact or law and may make changes to the PEB findings and recommendations.

Once the agency approves the PEB report, any changes in the outcome are quite rare. After approval, the agency forwards the report to the Secretary of the service, who has a designee that will issue final approval.

You have several options for appealing this decision. For more information, see Nolo's article on appealing the findings of the physical evaluation board.

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