A Disability Evaluation System in each branch of the U.S. military may find that a service member is unfit for duty because of a physical or mental disability. This would result in a disability discharge. In the Army and the Coast Guard, either a service member’s commander or a medical officer can refer the service member for an evaluation of their fitness. Other branches of the military require the referral to come from a medical officer. A medical officer will be most likely to initiate this process when they have been treating a service member who has shown few signs of improvement and can be expected to suffer from their condition for more than a year.
There are three main steps in the disability separation process. These consist of an initial review by a Medical Evaluation Board, a more detailed review by a Physical Evaluation Board, and final approval of that decision. The Boards will determine whether a service member is unfit and the benefits that they should receive if they are unfit. Throughout the process, a Physical Evaluation Board Liaison Officer will advise the service member on their rights and what they should expect from the Physical Evaluation Board. However, they do not serve as advocates for the service member, and no duty of confidentiality applies to their communications with the service member.
Review by the Medical Evaluation Board
As discussed above, the Medical Evaluation Board conducts the initial review of whether a service member is fit to perform their duties. The Board usually consists of doctors who will review the service member’s medical records and make recommendations based on that review. The service member does not have an opportunity to advocate for their position. If the Medical Evaluation Board finds that the service member is still fit for duty, the process will end without further action. If it finds that the service member may not be fit for duty, it will send their case to the Physical Evaluation Board for a more detailed analysis.
Sometimes the Medical Evaluation Board finds that a service member is still fit for duty while imposing certain limitations based on their condition. Those limitations will apply to the tasks that the service member is assigned unless and until the condition resolves.
Review by the Physical Evaluation Board
The Physical Evaluation Board will need to decide whether the service member is unfit for duty and, if so, make a specific type of unfitness determination. There are four types of these determinations, and you can read more here about what each type involves. The factors that the Physical Evaluation Board will consider include the likely duration of the disability and its connection to the service member’s duties. A service member will not be eligible for benefits if they sustained an injury because of their intentional misconduct or willful neglect, or if their injury happened while they were AWOL.
Initially, the Physical Evaluation Board will review a service member’s records and make recommendations without a hearing. The service member then will have an opportunity to seek a formal hearing before the Board if they disagree with the Board’s findings. They have a right to an attorney at the hearing, and they may want to submit any relevant evidence that was not previously available to the Board. You can read more here about these hearings.
Final Approval of Decision
Once the Physical Evaluation Board has made its decision, the agency that supervises the Physical Evaluation Board will conduct a final review. It will look for errors of fact or law by the Board, and it can change its recommendations as needed. The agency then will send the report to the Secretary for the appropriate branch of the armed forces. This report is almost always approved without changes. However, a service member still has a right to appeal the decision after final approval. You can read more here about appeals.