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.

By | Reviewed by Elyse Futhey, Contributing Writer

Active duty members who are referred to the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) usually have a lot of questions about what will happen to their military career, as well as their pay and benefits. IDES is the process the VA uses to help determine whether service members who are injured or ill are fit for continued military service. If you're found unfit for duty, you'll be medically discharged.

How Are "Unfit for Duty" and "Fit for Duty" Defined?

Fit for duty means you can 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're generally fit for duty, but can't perform certain tasks due to your disability.

Unfit for duty means you have a medical condition that disqualifies you from service because you can't reasonably be expected to perform the duties of your office, grade, rank, or rating.

Which Medical Conditions Make You Unfit for Duty?

Any medical condition (or combination of conditions) that substantially impairs your ability to perform the duties required by your rank and your military occupation can make you unfit for duty. Examples of medical conditions that might affect your fitness for duty include:

Mental and cognitive disorders, like PTSD and TBI, can make it difficult for service members to cope with stress, perform required duties, and follow orders. Sensory impairments such as vision or hearing loss can interfere with service members' situational awareness and effective communication, while physical conditions can limit their endurance and strength.

What Happens If You're Medically Unfit for Duty?

If the PEB determines that you're unfit for duty—for example, after an Army fit-for-duty evaluation or a Navy fitness exam—you'll be discharged from service ("medical separation"). Depending on how high your disability rating is and when in your military career the disability began, you'll be medically retired, separated with severance pay, or separated without benefits.

Permanent Medical Retirement

Members with 20 or more years of service who are found unfit for duty are placed on the permanent disability retirement list (PDRL). Members with less than 20 years of service can also be placed on the PDRL if they're:

  • unfit due to a stable condition (meaning the condition is unlikely to improve or worsen enough for the disability rating to be revised), and
  • the condition is rated at 30% or higher.

The amount of your retirement pay depends on how long you've served. If you have less than 20 years of service, the amount is calculated by multiplying your retired base pay by the percentage of your disability rating. If you have 20 or more years of service, your retirement pay is the higher of the following calculations:

  • 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 is calculated by averaging your highest 36 months of basic pay, and your awarded medical retirement pay can never exceed 75% of your retired base pay.

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

Medical Separation With Severance Pay

To be eligible for severance pay after you're found unfit for duty, one or more of the "unfitting" medical conditions that make you unfit for service must be rated by the PEB between 0% and 20%. (If the PEB finds your rating is 30% or higher and/or you have 20 or more years of service, you'll be eligible for permanent medical retirement instead of severance pay—see below.)

The amount of your severance pay is calculated by taking the number of years you've served (capped at 19), doubling that number, and then multiplying it by your retired base pay. Your retired base pay is calculated by averaging your highest 36 months of basic pay (assuming you entered the military after September 7, 1980).

In calculating the number of years you served, six months or more of service will count as one year. And even if you've served only a short time before separation, you'll automatically be credited with at least three years of service in all cases. If you were injured in a combat zone in the line of duty, you'll be credited with six years.

Medical Separation Without Benefits

An undesirable outcome, you can be medically separated from the military without being entitled to any benefits if your injury occurred when you were not entitled to basic pay (such as AWOL), or was due to your own intentional misconduct or willful negligence (meaning an action that was either taken on purpose or was reckless enough to place you in harm's way.)

In addition, service members can be found unfit for duty without benefits if they have a pre-existing condition that became worse while they were entitled to basic pay. You'll be medically separated without benefits if your condition wasn't aggravated by military service, and the condition "more likely than not" predated your service—unless you've been on active duty for eight years or more.

Learn More About Military Separation

For more information on the evaluation process of being found unfit for service, please see our article on disability separation and retirement from the military. And for a general overview on the process of leaving active duty, check out our resource page for more articles discussing military separation.

Updated May 26, 2023

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