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Physical Evaluation Board Works to Deliver Fair Outcomes

By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, June 9, 2008 – Col. Troy Lovett considers himself a myth buster of sorts.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Terrie Wurzbacher, medical officer for the Physical Evaluation Board at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, reviews a soldier’s file. U.S. Army photo by Elaine Wilson, Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

As president of the Physical Evaluation Board here, Lovett spends a considerable amount of time setting the record straight about the PEB process, which determines whether soldiers are fit or unfit for duty.

“Soldiers may hear something from a buddy or a blog and accept it as fact,” he said. “There are a lot of myths out there about the system.”

Since Physical Evaluation Boards deal with money and careers, the rumor mill may be inevitable, Lovett said, but he hopes one truth remains evident. “The reality is that we are all focused on making sure soldiers are treated fairly and receive their full due process,” he said.

At Fort Sam Houston, a 16-person staff, skilled in medical and military matters, is dedicated to carrying out the PEB mission, which echoes Lovett’s mandate: “provide a full and fair hearing to determine a soldier’s physical fitness for continued military service.”

The process starts with stacks of paperwork about the soldier’s medical condition and duty performance, which represent years of service and considerable work by the soldier, his or her chain of command, and the medical staff providing treatment.

Prior to the PEB, soldiers must work with their PEB liaison officer to gather extensive documentation regarding their case, to include the results from a Medical Evaluation Board. The MEB, normally conducted at a military treatment facility, uses tests, exams and medical records to make a recommendation to the PEB about whether or not the soldier meets medical retention standards.

In turn, PEB members must weed through a massive amount of information, including MEB results, medical files, evaluations, counseling forms, commander’s statement, and results from physical fitness tests. Their goal is to reach a decision about whether or not a soldier can continue service.

A soldier may be considered fit or unfit based on several criteria, the most critical being performance and how the soldier’s medical condition affects his or her performance, Lovett explained.

“For performance, we look at whether or not a soldier can meet Army standards in their primary military occupational specialty,” he said. “As for medical condition, we have to decide if the condition precludes a soldier from reasonably performing the duties of his or her office, grade, rank or rating in his or her unit, at the present time.”

Deployability is a factor considered in the equation, but it is not used as a sole basis for an unfit determination, Lovett said.

After review, a three-person board consisting of a president, a medical member and a personnel management officer, votes on each case, and the majority decision rules.

“We are making a determination if the soldier can continue to do his or her job,” Lovett said. “If a soldier is considered unfit, we make a recommendation whether to separate or retire the soldier.”

If a soldier is considered unfit, the PEB will recommend one of the following options: separate with severance pay, separate without benefits, place on the temporary disability retirement list, or grant permanent disability retirement. Soldiers placed on temporary disability retirement receive health benefits and some of their base pay, but are subject to periodic examinations to determine the long-term outcome. A soldier placed on permanent disability retirement is medically retired, which can follow 20 years of service or a 30 percent or higher disability rating, provided the rated condition is considered stable.

So far, in fiscal 2008, only 3 percent of soldiers considered by the Physical Evaluation Board here have been separated without benefits, 47 percent have been separated with severance pay, and 14 percent have been permanently retired, Lovett said.

The board also decides if a disability rating will be assigned as compensation for the loss of a military career. If a rating is given for an unfit condition, it is determined by criteria established by the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs schedule for rating disabilities, and it will range from 0 to 100 percent in increments of 10.

Disability ratings are one topic that stirs up the rumor mill, because the Army and VA often differ in their ratings, though they use the same rating schedule, Lovett said.

The reason, Lovett explained, is tied to the injury or health condition and whether it qualifies for an “unfit” rating.

“If someone breaks a leg in service but can continue to do their job,” Lovett explained, “the VA may give a rating since it was a service-connected injury. But the Army may not, because we only rate conditions that prematurely end a soldier’s career.”

Lovett emphasized that each case is unique and is determined based on the specific factors and situation unique to each individual soldier.

Up to this point, the process is conducted informally, by paper only. However, once informed of the initial decision and rating, soldiers can request a formal board to plead their cases in front of the decision makers. The soldiers are afforded access to legal counsel to accompany them to the formal board. They are assisted by their PEB liaison officer or case manager throughout the process.

“We allow the soldiers to provide material evidence, documentation and statements from chain of command to substantiate their case,” Lovett said.

Soldiers can appeal their formal board decision, as well, by non-concurring with the decision.

“Soldiers have multiple opportunities to voice their concerns with those who can do something about it,” he said. “We work hard at doing the right thing.”

The PEB then sends its recommendation to the Physical Disability Agency, which has the authority to approve recommendations, return the soldier’s case to the PEB for reconsideration, or issue revised findings. The PDA also serves as the appellate authority when soldiers disagree with their PEB recommendations.

From start to finish, the PEB here is required to complete its process, including appeals, within 30 days from receipt and logging of the case. On average, the Texas PEB completes its work in about 20 days, Lovett said.

Lovett said he hopes to cut the time back even further to provide better service to soldiers and their families. But with 25 to 30 cases submitted a day, he and his staff have their work cut out for them.

Cases are submitted from throughout the Fort Sam Houston PEB’s area of responsibility, which encompasses nine states stretching from the western border of Texas to the southernmost tip of Florida.

Out of the three Army PEBs worldwide, the Fort Sam Houston office handles about 40 percent of total cases submitted, averaging between 5,000 and 6,000 cases a year. For fiscal 2008, it’s on pace to receive about 5,700 cases.

Despite the heavy workload, Lovett said, each is given equal attention.

“We understand what a soldier and their family are going through. A PEB is a significant and potentially life-altering event,” he said.

The staff bends over backward for soldiers and their families, Lovett said. “We track down information for them and do whatever it takes to put the soldier up front,” he said. “The bottom line is that we’re here to help soldiers move on, whether it’s on to civilian lives or back to the fighting force.”

(Elaine Wilson works in the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office.)

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