How to Advocate for Yourself in the Military Disability Evaluation System (DES)
Learn how to make the military's Disability Evaluation System work for you.
If you find yourself referred to the military Disability Evaluation System, depending on your circumstances you may feel hopeful, worried, or unsure about your future. The military uses the Disability Evaluation System (DES) to determine whether you are fit for duty or whether separation for unfitness due to disability is necessary.
If you've been having difficulty with your duties as a result of your disability, you may feel relieved and welcome an administrative separation. If you have concerns about being separated, and/or about your pay or benefits, you may feel alarmed. Or you may feel ambivalent and unsure of what you might like the outcome to be. There are certain actions you can take to advocate for yourself in the DES to seek a favorable outcome.
If You’re Unsure What You Want
It is a good idea to take a step back and evaluate the outcome you would like from the DES process. (Here's an overview of the DES process.) The outcome will impact the life of you and your family for years to come. You can have an influence on the outcome, but you will be able to advocate most effectively for yourself if you are consistent in what you want. For instance, if you decide you want to medically retire but later change your mind, you will likely have less influence on how things end up. Decide as early in the process as you can what you would like the outcome to be, and submit any records that can help your case.
If You Want to Continue to Serve or Are Close to 20 Years of Service
It is in your best interest, if possible, to reach 20 years of service before being medically retired. Medical retirement pay is less than standard military retirement pay, and in some cases medical retirement can lead to a loss of benefits.
If you want to be found fit to serve so you can get to 20 years before being retired, you will have to provide evidence showing that you can still perform your duties. Get copies of your performance evaluations, statements from your supervisor and/or Commander, records of any awards you have received, and any other documentation that will demonstrate that any limitations you may have a result of your disability do not substantially impede your ability to serve.
If You Want a Disability Discharge or Medical Retirement
If you are pleased that you have been referred to the Disability Evaluation System and you would like to leave the service, then you will want to get statements from your supervisors about how your disability significantly impedes your ability to perform your duties and copies of any performance evaluations that document your inability to perform adequately. For more information about types of unfit findings, see Nolo's article on being found unfit for duty.
Talk to the Physical Evaluation Board Liaison Officer (PEBLO)
Take advantage of the availability of the Physical Evaluation Board Liaison Officer (PEBLO). PEBLOs are not your personal advocate because they work for the military, but nonetheless they can provide much helpful information to you about the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) and Physical Evaluation Board (PEB) process.
It is the PEBLO's responsibility to make contact with you after you have been referred in to the Disability Evaluation System (to the MEB) and to educate you about the process. Your PEBLO will keep you informed of any findings and decisions that are made by the boards and answer any questions you have about the process. PEBLOs are an excellent source of information for you so long as you also remember it is not their job to advocate for the outcome you want. You will need to advocate for yourself and/or seek a legal advocate (a military lawyer) to assist you.
Advocacy at the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB)
The first step in the process is a review conducted by the Medical Evaluation Board. The MEB reviews your medical records and evaluates whether your disability limits your ability to perform your duties. It is in your best interests to make sure the MEB has a complete medical record.
You won’t have the chance to speak with anyone on the MEB before a decision is issued, because the MEB does not hold hearings. But do take advantage of the opportunity to submit information showing you are either fit or unfit for duty, in order to advocate for the outcome you desire. The Medical Evaluation Board can find you are fit to return to duty and end the disability evaluation process, or, can make an initial finding that you are unfit for duty and refer your case on to the next step in the process, the Physical Evaluation Board.
Advocacy at the Physical Evaluation Board (PEB)
If your case gets referred to the PEB, you will want to make yourself knowledgeable about disability ratings for your specific disability or disabilities. Your disability rating will be a significant factor along with the length of your service, in determining your disability pay. For more information, read Nolo’s article Unfit for Duty, which describes how disability pay is calculated.
Look up your medical conditions in the Schedule for Rating Disabilities. Certain tests will be required in order to qualify for some ratings. If you have a condition that requires a test you haven’t had yet, ask your doctor to schedule the test for you. Be creative and find ways to document symptoms that are required by your rating that may not be evident in your medical records.
Nolo has a series of articles about getting disability compensation for disabilities after your release from service. This is different from your circumstance while you're still in the military because you are either trying to argue for a higher rating to increase your pay if you are aiming to be medically released, or, you are trying to pursue a lower rating to demonstrate you are not disabled and should remain in service. Nolo’s articles, however, can help you understand the criteria by which your medical conditions will get evaluated under the Schedule for Rating Disabilities.
Information About Mental Disabilities
You may find the following articles have helpful information about disability ratings for your psychological or emotional medical condition:
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- military sexual trauma, or
- mental illness (other than depression or PTSD).
Information About Common Physical Disabilities
You may find the following articles have helpful information about disability ratings for your physical medical condition.
- traumatic brain injury
- muscle injury
- gulf war syndrome
- respiratory (breathing) problems
- skin conditions
- vision or hearing loss, or
- heart problems.
Write a Rebuttal Statement After Informal Findings Are Issued
After the PEB reviews your file, an informal finding about your fitness or unfitness will be issued. If you disagree with this finding, then write a statement to the PEB and include with it any new evidence that supports your case. In some circumstances, the PEB will reconsider its decision based on your submission and change its findings in your favor. If not, then your next step is to have a PEB hearing.
Physical Evaluation Board (PEB) Hearing
At your hearing, you will have the chance to bring witnesses, submit evidence, and ask questions. You have the right to be represented by a military lawyer at no cost to yourself at a PEB hearing. Or, you can hire a private attorney to represent you. If you know of a veterans service officer who has handled these types of hearings before, you can also ask them for help.
For more information about how the hearing is conducted, read Nolo’s article What to Expect at a Physical Disability Evaluation Hearing. If you are unsuccessful at the PEB hearing, you have the right to appeal the PEB decision.