By Mr Lorin Smith (IMCOM)November 3, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- It is the last thing a Soldier wants to hear: medically "unfit" and can't continue to serve. The reasons are plenty -- musculoskeletal issue, multiple sclerosis or battle injury.
A year ago, the process to receive disability benefits from the Army and Department of Veterans Affairs would have taken more than two years. Thanks to the efforts of the attorneys and paralegals with the Office of Soldiers' Counsel, the time it takes for a Soldier to obtain his or her Army and VA disability benefits has been reduced to little more than a year.
Legal professionals from the Western United States, Asia and the Pacific came to Joint Base Lewis-McChord last week to attend the Region III Army Physical Disability Evaluation System Attorney/Paralegal Training Seminar to review how well the Disability Evaluation System has been working, and to discuss other medical and legal issues affecting Soldiers. The training showed that many of the OSC's recommendations for the new disability system are working.
Before DES, Soldiers had to file claims with both the Army and the VA to find out what their disability rating and benefit would be. That process has been streamlined so that a Soldier who is discharged and separated from the Army will leave with benefits from both agencies, saving time, paperwork and headaches for that individual, said Steven Engle, with the JBLM OSC. The new system also helps the Army maintain force readiness, as medically non-deployable servicemembers can be taken off active duty faster to allow new deployable Soldiers into the unit.
Going through the Medical and Physical Evaluation Boards can seem like a daunting course of events for most Soldiers, especially those who want to be found "fit" for duty, Engle said. If Soldiers seek out a Soldiers' Counsel attorney early on in the process, it won't seem as difficult.
A legal Soldier goes to the hospital and a doctor determines that he has five medical issues, and only one of those five -- low back pain -- makes him "unfit" to continue serving in the Army. He no longer can wear a rucksack or ride in a military vehicle for long periods. He goes before the MEB and they determine that the low back pain diagnosis does medically disqualify him from continuing in the Army. That Soldier then goes before the Physical Evaluation Board, or PEB, to find out if he can stay in the Army or not.
Because his Military Occupational Specialty is with the Judge Advocate General, has superb NCO evaluation reports and has support from his chain of command, the three-panel PEB judges will probably determine that he can continue to serve on active duty, or with the active reserve. Soldiers should not just assume that when they go through the PEB, that they are going to be "kicked out," said Office of Soldiers' Counsel Director Col. Joyce Hamel. "Our only interest is helping the Soldier achieve their desired outcome," Hamel said. "The belief from the Army is that the Soldier has the best advocate, and that's us."
Many OSC attorneys are solo practitioners at their respective bases throughout the Pacific Region. For some, the conference was the first time they had talked to another lawyer certified in helping Soldiers get their disability ratings. Most civilian lawyers were former active duty and have a great deal of experience navigating both the Army and VA medical landscapes. "Our role is unique, in that we are the only office that represents Soldiers day in, day out, in front of the PEB and MEB, and has a duty, law, and regulation to help the Soldiers," Engle said.
Obtaining the highest possible disability rating is important for servicemembers because the higher the rating, the more disability benefits available. An OSC attorney could be the difference between someone going from a 20 percent rating to 30 percent, which qualifies for medical retirement. That can be quite a large sum of money, including health care benefits for Family members and additional preference points in federal government hiring. "We try to make sure the Soldier is being rated appropriately and fairly," Engle said.
Region III physical boards conducted more than 5,000 hearings last year and nearly 15,000 across the Army. That works out to 20 hearings per weekday, which can be quite a workload for the attorneys, and scary for servicemembers who already are dealing with stress over their situation and want to feel like someone understands their specific case. Hamel said that Soldiers need to contact an OSC lawyer as soon as possible, and preferably after an issued P3 profile.
"In a majority of these cases, we're able to help them achieve a more favorable outcome than they had before (legal representation)," Hamel said. "We want to build their confidence level, and help the Soldier understand the process and increase satisfaction."
The JBLM OSC is available to brief on- and off-base community groups upon request. For more information, call Engle at 968-4438.
Lorin T. Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org