By Jim Wenzel, WTC STRATCOM
Both on and off the battlefield, Soldiers can become wounded, ill, or injured. In all cases, their placement in one of the 29 Warrior Transition Units (WTU) throughout the Army meets a common criteria, the severity of the condition requires at least 6 months of rehabilitative care and complex medical management. While in the WTU, the Soldier’s sole mission is to heal and prepare for transition back to the force, or to the civilian world as an Army Veteran.
In the WTU, the Soldier is guided through a Comprehensive Transition Plan (CTP) with the help of an interdisciplinary team composed of the Triad of Care (primary care manager, nurse case manager, and squad leader) as well as other medical and non-medical specialists. The plan is written by the Soldier and covers six domains: Family, physical, social, spiritual, emotional, and career.
For many of these wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers, successful transition begins with the results of a Medical Evaluation Board (MEB). Under the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES), the Soldier will receive a comprehensive evaluation of all medical conditions in cooperation with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Once the medical evaluation is completed, the MEB will determine whether one or more of the Soldier’s medical conditions fail Army medical retention standards.
If so, the Soldier is referred to a Physical Evaluation Board (PEB), which determines fitness for continued service. For all conditions found by the PEB to render the Soldier unfit for duty, the PEB assigns a disability rating percentage that has been provided by the VA. The combined rating of all unfitting conditions will determine whether the Soldier will be separated with severance pay or retired—either temporarily or permanently. Additionally, one of the primary benefits of the IDES is that the Soldier will also receive the proposed ratings prior to separation for any medical conditions that do not cause him or her to be unfit for continued service. This greatly facilitates successful planning on the part of the Soldier and Family.
This process can be lengthy and frustrating for some. This frustration can be compounded if the Soldier receives a result he or she did not want or expect. Thankfully, with careful planning and timely advice, the uncertainties associated with the Disability Evaluation System (DES) can be greatly reduced.
There are a variety of offices and officials that are standing by to assist Soldiers and Family members during this process. One of the most important is the Office of Soldier’s MEB and PEB Counsel, which provides free legal services to Soldiers involved in the IDES process. Soldiers’ MEB/PEB Counsel teams consist of military and DOD civilian attorneys and paralegals that are specially trained in the DES. Their mission is to advise and represent Soldiers throughout the DES and to safeguard their rights throughout the process. They do NOT represent the Army, the Medical or Physical Evaluation Boards, or the Soldier’s command. These skilled legal professionals will work with a Soldier to help achieve his or her desired outcome.
It is important for every Soldier entering the process to realize that the path to a particular outcome can be shaped even before the MEB begins. Consulting with a Soldiers’ Counsel early in the process will improve a Soldier’s chance of attaining his or her goals and will also help reduce a Soldier’s frustration and anxiety by ensuring that their MEB packet contains all relevant and accurate information for the MEB and PEB to consider when making their determinations.
To help familiarize wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers with the MEB and PEB process, and the services available to assist them, the Office of Soldiers’ Counsel (OSC) developed a video overview of the process.
Soldiers’ MEB Counsel (SMEBC) personnel are located at hospitals and medical treatment facilities (MTF) throughout the Army. They are available to Soldiers during every stage of the MEB process to provide counsel when the Soldier receives the informal PEB decision (IPEB). In addition to high quality advice and advocacy regarding the DES, SMEBC personnel offer general legal assistance services to Soldiers in the WTU and, in some cases, to members of the Soldiers’ Families as well. These services typically include wills, powers of attorney, notary services and, landlord and tenant disputes. These services may not be available at all installations due to resources and demand, so Soldiers are encouraged to check their local MTF. Of course, they are at no cost to the servicemember.
If a Soldier desires to challenge the IPEB decision, Soldiers’ PEB Counsel (SPEBC) stand ready to provide advice and representation. The SPEBC are located at the three PEB sites, Crystal City, Virginia, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. SPEBC personnel work closely with the SMEBC to create a seamless transition and team that work together to ensure the PEB considers all relevant evidence and reaches the correct determination, whether that is to find the Soldier fit for duty or to ensure all medical conditions are accurately reflected. The SPEBC are experts in assisting wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers who request formal PEB hearings with additional tools for reaching their goals through thorough pre-board preparation, and effective advocacy during negotiations and the hearing, should one need specialized assistance during the appeal process.
The SMEBC and SPEBC are available to assist Soldiers who may wish to challenge ratings by the VA for any medical conditions found to render the Soldier unfit for continued service. There are very tight deadlines, so Soldiers are strongly encouraged to consult with SMEBC or SPEBC as early as possible. However, even if a Soldier missed a suspense date, they should still contact a legal counsel if they have concerns as there may be an exception that would allow the Soldier to raise his or her concern.
To contact a SMEBC or SPEBC office, or for more information about the Office of Soldiers’ Counsel and its services, visit the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Office of Soldier’s Counsel website.