Today’s Disability Retirement Squeeze Began Years Ago
Wary of rising disability retirement costs, the Department of Defense under then-secretary Caspar Weinberger quietly sought and received an internal legal opinion that, to this day, tamps down the number of wounded or ill service members awarded military disability retirement.
The March 25, 1985, memo from the DoD office of general counsel, which only recently came to light, gave Defense health officials a green light to restrain military disability ratings without a change in law.
They did so by directing the services to stop setting disability awards based on all service-connected ailments found during medical evaluations, and start basing them only on conditions that leave members unfit for duty.
The policy change took effect in February 1986 with a revised DoD instruction to services. Its impact can be profound on individuals, particularly in wartime. The Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission is studying the effects and its chairman this month sounded an alarm.
The advantages of receiving disability retirement, which requires a 30-percent or higher disability rating, are great for members with less than 20 years in service. Beside an immediate annuity, disabled retirees and their families gain lifetime access to TRICARE, to base shopping privileges and to a host of other perks tied to “retiree” status.
Veterans with disability ratings of 0 to 20 percent receive only a lump-sum severance payment upon discharge. They can apply to the Department of Veterans Affairs for a higher rating and will often get one, which can mean monthly VA compensation and improved access to medical care. But VA care isn’t available to families and VA doesn’t offer base-like support services.
The experience of Army National Guard Spc. Kenneth Parham, 47, shows the impact of the 1986 policy shift on disability awards today. In April 2005, Parham was in the gun turret of a Humvee when it drove over a bomb buried beneath a road outside Kirkuk, Iraq. The explosion tossed his Humvee high into the air. It was Parham’s third contact with an improvised explosive device in five months. This one collapsed a lung, fractured ribs and damaged discs in his neck and back.
Today, the once vigorous Parham, who as a civilian drove a moving van and lifted up to 5000 pounds of household goods a day, needs a motorized cart to shop in stores. He has chronic neck and back pain. He must walk slowly, sit frequently and can’t lift more than 20 pounds. Because he can’t wear a helmet or his carry a rucksack, the Army has found the former Marine unfit for duty. It plans to discharge Parham with a 20-percent rating and about $40,000 in severance. Next week, he will travel from his home in Lewiston, Idaho, to Fort Lewis, Wash., to appeal that rating decision before a physical evaluation board.
His wife, Cheryl, said a 20-percent rating is so unjust, given how her husband’s quality of life and job prospects have plummeted.
“How’s he going to support himself the rest of his life,” she asked. Service-connected ailments that the Army ignored in setting the 20-percent figure, she said, include post-traumatic stress disorder with nightmares, a weakened leg, the sleep apnea, high-blood pressure and arthritis.
Injured war veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming more aware of the critical 30-percent threshold. Some credit for that goes to retired Army Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, chairman of the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission. Scott spotlighted the value of 30 percent ratings, and ruffled feathers of DoD officials, before a Senate hearing last week when he said the higher cost of disability retirement, versus severance pay, gives DoD “a strong incentive” to award 20 percent or less.
No service does it more often than the Army, according to fresh service data released by Scott. From 2000 through 2006, the Army gave ratings of 30 percent or higher to only 13 percent of soldiers deemed disabled. By comparison, the Navy awarded disability retirement to 36 percent of its disabled members. The Air Force number was 27 and the Marines Corps 18 percent.
More troubling, Scott suggested, was data showing Army awarded a 0 percent rating to 13,646 soldiers that it found unfit for duty. The Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force had assigned 0 ratings only to 400 apiece.
Scott said he wasn’t speaking for the commission which won’t finish its report until fall. But he urged Defense officials to allow the services to begin setting disability awards based on all service-connected disabilities found.
To ease rating disparities across the services, and between DoD and VA, he recommended that the VA alone conduct all medical evaluations and set all disability ratings before members leave service.
Col. Andy Buchanan, deputy commander of the Army’s Physical Disability Agency (PDA), said he would quibble with some of the commission’s data but clearly there are troubling disparities in ratings between services that can’t be explained by “mission differences” alone.
“I know where we’re different right now, but I have to find out why,” said Buchanan. He has recommended an independent audit of service disability awards to identify the factors creating the service disparities. But Buchanan, in our phone interview, denied that the PDA or individual evaluation boards operate with any concern for how rating decisions impact Army budgets.
The Army does not follow VA criteria to rate every condition. For example, the VA rates some sleep apnea as 50 disabling, higher than the loss of a limb, Buchanan said. Also, unlike the VA, the Army does not presume that every medical condition that surfaces while in service is “service-connected.”
“We’re pretty rigid – and that may be why we’re perceived as stingy — about following the rules, looking for evidence,” Buchanan said.