The Disability Evaluation System is meant to determine whether a service member in the U.S. military is fit or unfit to perform their duties. Not every finding of fitness is the same, nor is every finding of unfitness the same. In general, a finding of fitness means that the service member can remain in the military because they are reasonably able to perform their regular duties, based on their rank and type of career. Being fit for duty does not necessarily mean that a service member has no limitations. Sometimes a finding of fitness will stipulate certain limitations that must be taken into account as the individual’s military service continues.
By contrast, a finding of unfitness means that the service member no longer can reasonably perform their regular duties because of a physical or mental condition. The Department of Defense provides a list of disqualifying medical conditions, as does each branch of the armed forces. Unlisted conditions may disqualify a service member, however, as long as they significantly undermine their ability to perform their duties. There are four types of unfitness findings, which are discussed in more detail below.
Unfitness and Placement on Permanent Disability Retirement List
If you have served in the military for 20 years or longer, you will be placed on the permanent disability retirement list based on any condition that makes you unfit for service. Your disability retirement pay will be calculated by multiplying your retired base pay by your disability percentage rating, or by multiplying your years of service by 2.5 and multiplying the result by your retired base pay, whichever is higher. The average of your highest 36 months of basic pay will be used to determine your retired base pay. You cannot receive disability retirement pay that is greater than 75 percent of your retired base pay.
If you have not yet served in the military for 20 years, you will be placed on the permanent disability retirement list if you are found unfit based on a stable condition that is rated at 30 percent or higher. A stable condition is a condition that is not expected to change to an extent that the service member’s disability rating also would change. If you are in this situation, your disability retirement pay will be calculated by multiplying your retired base pay by your disability percentage rating. Again, your highest 36 months of basic pay will be averaged to determine your retired base pay.
Unfitness and Placement on Temporary Disability Retirement List
This finding of unfitness is appropriate if a service member has a disability rating of at least 30 percent for a condition that is unstable. An unstable condition means that it is expected to change during the next five years, such that their disability rating might also change. Service members on this list will be evaluated regularly to determine whether their condition has become stable. If a later evaluation shows that the service member’s condition is stable, the Physical Evaluation Board can evaluate them again to determine whether they should be placed on the permanent disability retirement list.
The benefits are the same for service members on the temporary list as for other retired service members. They must receive at least 50 percent but no more than 75 percent of their retired base pay. If your disability is rated between 50 percent and 75 percent, the percentage of your retired base pay will correspond to your disability rating. Placement on the temporary list can last for no more than five years. If a service member is still on the list at that time, they may transition to permanent retirement, or they may be released with severance pay or released without benefits.
Sometimes a service member’s condition resolves after they spend time on the temporary list. This may allow them to return to duty. If this happens, they cannot count their time on the temporary list as part of their years of service in establishing their eligibility for permanent retirement.
Unfitness and Separation with Severance Pay
Separation with severance pay is available for service members who have not yet served for 20 years and are unfit for service with a rating between 0 percent and 20 percent. They will receive severance pay that is calculated by doubling their years of service and then multiplying that amount by their retired base pay. As above, the average of their highest 36 months of basic pay will be used to determine their retired base pay.
A service member will receive automatic credit for three years of service, even if they served for less than three years. If they were injured in a combat zone while they were on duty, they will receive automatic credit for six years of service. Any six-month increment after passing a year mark will count as a year. (In other words, if you served for four years and six months, this will count as five years.)
Unfitness and Separation Without Benefits
This most often occurs when a service member suffered an injury while they were AWOL or otherwise not entitled to basic pay. It also may occur when a service member acted with extreme recklessness that exposed them to harm, or when they were injured because of their own wrongdoing. In some cases, an exacerbation of a pre-existing condition may make a service member ineligible for benefits. This will require a finding that the pre-existing condition started before the service member entered the military and that the exacerbation did not result from the natural progression of the condition.