Unfit for Duty: When You Can Be Found Unfit and Denied Benefits After Separation From the Military

Whether you will be found unfit with or without benefits depends on how your injury your occurred, your disability rating, and your years of service.

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If you are a military service member who has been referred to the Disability Evaluation System, you may have a lot of questions about what you can expect to have happen to your military career and your pay and benefits. The purpose of this article is to explain what the Disability Evaluation System must prove in order to find you unfit and to explain the different types of outcomes that may occur if you are found unfit.

Fitness and Unfitness Defined

"Fit for duty" means it is possible for you to continue in military service because, despite your injury or illness, you remain reasonably able to perform the duties required of your grade and military occupation. In some cases, the Physical Evaluation Board (PEB) will find that you are fit for duty but have certain limitations in the duties you are able to perform due to your disability.

"Unfit for duty" means you are unable to perform the duties of your "office, grade, rank or rating" due to your illness or injury. To be found unfit for duty, you:

  • must have a medical condition that disqualifies you from fitness for service, and
  • cannot reasonably be expected to perform the duties of your rank and military career due to this medical condition.

Medical Conditions That Make You Unfit

The Department of Defense lists medical conditions in DOD Directive 1332.38 that disqualify you from duty, but this is not an exhaustive list. Each branch has regulations that include other disqualifying medical conditions.

Any medical condition that substantially impacts your ability to perform the duties required by your grade and your military occupation can be the basis of your being found unfit to continue to serve.

Types of Unfit Findings

Unfit and separation without benefits

This is the least desirable outcome. It means you will be separated from the military without being entitled to any benefits. You will get this outcome when your injury:

  • occurred when you were not entitled to basic pay (such as AWOL), or
  • was due to your own intentional misconduct (meaning, your actions were taken on purpose) or willful negligence (meaning, you took very reckless actions that placed you in harm's way).
You can also be found unfit without entitlement to benefits if you had a pre-existing condition that became worse while you were entitled to basic pay. For the military to find this, the following must be true:
  • It must be “more likely than not” that the disability predated your military service, and
  • The worsening of your condition wasn’t just due to the natural progression of your illness or injury.

A finding of unfit and separation without benefits means you will be released without any military pay at all.

Unfit and Separation With Severance Pay

To be found unfit but eligible for severance pay, one or more of your medical conditions must be “unfitting” (meaning, makes you unfit for service as describe above) and must be rated by the PEB between 0 and 20%. This means that military ratings of 0%, 10% and 20% are all eligible for severance pay. You will only be rated for those conditions deemed to impact your fitness to serve.

Your severance pay will equal your years of service, up to no higher than 19, multiplied by two and then multiplied by your base retired pay. Your retired base pay will be calculated by averaging your highest 36 months of basic pay (assuming you entered the military after September 7, 1980).

Six months or more of service will count as one year. Even if you have served only a short time before separation, you will automatically be credited with three years of service in all cases, and if you were injured in a combat zone in the line of duty, six years.

Unfit and Placement on Permanent Disability Retirement List (PDRL)

20 years or less of service. If you have less than 20 years of service, to be permanently retired you must be found unfit due to a “stable” condition rated at 30% or higher. Stable means unlikely to change enough to qualify for a revised disability rating.

Your retirement pay will be your retired base pay multiplied by the percentage assigned to your disability. (Your retired base pay will be calculated by averaging your highest 36 months of basic pay.) You will be rated only for those conditions deemed to impact your fitness to serve.

20 years or more of service. If you have 20 or more years of service, you can be medically retired if you have any unfitting condition that is rated at least at 0%. Your retirement pay will be whichever of the following is higher:

  • your retired base pay multiplied by the percentage rating assigned to your disability, or
  • your years of service multiplied by 2.5, and then multiplied by your retired base pay.

Your retired base pay will be calculated by averaging your highest 36 months of basic pay. Under no circumstances can your awarded disability retirement pay exceed 75% of your retired base pay.

Regardless of your total years of service, you will be able to keep your military retirement benefits such as health care and travel benefits.

Unfit with Placement on Temporary Disability Retirement List (TDRL)

If you are found to be unfit, and your disabilities are rated at 30% or more but the disabilities are considered “unstable,” you will be placed on the Temporary Disability Retirement List. Unstable means likely to improve or worsen over the next five years, so that a new disability rating will be needed. While on the TDRL, you will have periodic examinations to determine if your condition has stabilized. If your disability is later found to be stable (unlikely to change in severity), you will be referred back to the PEB for further evaluation. Again, only your conditions that create unfitness to serve will be rated and compensated.

While you are on TDRL, you will receive the same benefits as all military retirees. The maximum pay you can receive is 75% of your retired base pay. You are entitled to at least 50% of your retired base pay while on TDRL regardless of your disability rating. If you have a disability rated higher than 50%, you are entitled to more than 50% of your base pay, up to a total of 75%

You are eligible to be on the TDRL for only five years. At the end of five years, your case will be reevaluated and you will be permanently retired, released with severance, or released without benefits.

If you are later found fit and returned to duty, your time on the TDRL will not count towards your years of service for the purposes of permanent military retirement.

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