What to Expect at a Physical Disability Evaluation Hearing for Military Separation or Retirement
There are several steps for the Physical Evaluation Board to decide whether you are unfit for duty due to a disability.
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After you have been referred to the Disability Evaluation System for your branch of the service to determine whether you are unfit for duty (and should be retired from the military), the first step of the process is for a Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) to determine if you meet threshold requirements for unfitness. If you do, an assessment by the Physical Evaluation Board (MEB) is warranted. This article addresses what you should expect to happen after the MEB refers your case to the PEB.
Who Serves on the PEB?
There are actually two different Physical Evaluation Boards, one is informal and the other is formal. There are typically three people who serve on each board. A senior officer generally operates as the president of the board and the other two members tend to be a line officer and a physician.
In the Army, the same three members serve on both the formal and informal boards. In the Air Force and Navy, different board members serve on the formal and informal boards.
The Informal Physical Evaluation Board
If the MEB refers your case to the Physical Evaluation Board, the first step is for the informal PEB to review the case file submitted by the MEB. During the informal PEB, you don’t get the opportunity for a hearing, instead the decision is issued based on the record alone. The informal PEB will review your case to make sure it is complete.
If the informal PEB finds that medical evidence is missing, it will send you back to a military physician for further evaluation and/or testing. If the informal PEB finds that the medical evidence is adequate, it will issue a decision about whether you should be found fit or unfit.
Requesting a Hearing
At this point, you need to make a choice between accepting the informal PEB decision or requesting a formal PEB hearing. If you accept the decision, your case will be forwarded through personnel channels and up to the Secretary of your branch for final approval.
If you ask for a hearing, you will have the chance to ask questions, provide new evidence and testing, and present witnesses. When you request a hearing, you also have the right to submit a written statement about why you disagree with the informal PEB decision.
Sometimes, especially if you are submitting new medical evidence that was not already in your file, the informal PEB may reconsider its findings and issue a new decision on your case. But if not, you can proceed to the hearing.
Being Represented at the Formal PEB Hearing
You have the right to a free military lawyer to represent you at a formal PEB hearing. You also have the right to hire a private attorney or to have a veterans service officer, who is experienced at handling these hearings, assist you.
Appearing at the PEB Hearing
You are not required to make a personal appearance at a PEB hearing, but it is to your advantage to do so. If you don’t, then the formal PEB will review the same case file that the informal PEB evaluated and may reach the same decision.
You also aren’t required to testify, but it is best to cooperate, because otherwise, the PEB will rely heavily on its pre-hearing decision. The hearing is an opportunity for you to try to get a higher rating for your disability or try to be found fit by presenting additional evidence.
What Happens at the Hearing
The actual formalities of PEB hearings differ between the military branches, but usually start with your introduction to the board. Then your attorney might give a short opening statement about the decision you would like to see and the evidence that will be presented to support it. After that the attorney will present the evidence to the board, and you will have the chance to testify. You can also have other witnesses present to testify on your behalf.
When you testify, your attorney will ask you questions, and the PEB members may ask you questions as well. Finally, you will have the opportunity to make a statement about your case and then your attorney can make a closing statement. The hearing will then be concluded. The PEB will not tell you their decision right away.
How to Conduct Yourself at the Hearing
Be very courteous to members of the PEB. It is understandable that you may feel very nervous and upset, as if the PEB really does not have your best interests at heart. But be careful not to vent this frustration at the hearing, as it will not help you to get a desirable outcome.
Make a good impression by addressing board members by their title, or as sir or ma’am. This will make you seem credible and will make it easier for the board members to rely on your testimony during the hearing.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, it is perfectly ok to say so. You will be asked about your disabilities, your military occupation, how your disability limits your ability to perform your occupation, and the history of your treatment for your disability.
How to Discuss Your Post-Service Plans
Very often you will be asked what your plans are if you receive a disability separation. If you desire a disability separation, it is best not to mention any specific plans that are inconsistent with your stated physical disability. You won’t want to tell the board you’d like to be a firefighter if you have complained of a severe knee injury, or talk about your plans to go into roofing.
It’s also advisable not to mention that you plan to go to a school you just got accepted to, as this can cause the board to distrust your motives and think you are seeking separation for reasons outside of being disabled. You could say, for example, that you would like to back to school. If asked directly whether you have been accepted to a school, however, you must answer truthfully.
When you make your statement, don’t vent too much of your frustration. Instead politely state your case and thank the board for giving you the opportunity to be heard. If the PEB made mistakes evaluating the facts or the law in your case, this is your opportunity to ask the board members to reconsider their decision, or to file an appeal.