I help America's warriors prove how sick they are. This is hopefully good for their pay and benefits, but I increasingly fear it is bad for their health.
When U.S. service members suffer illness or injury, they may be referred for disability evaluation. The military determines their fitness for duty, while the Veterans Affairs Department rates their medical conditions. This joint system marked a huge improvement over previous eras, when the Pentagon and the VA ran parallel programs plagued by inefficiency and inconsistency.
Yet both agencies still maintain byzantine processes for managing disability benefits. With the Pentagon's renewed emphasis on readiness after nearly two decades of continuous war, troops whose ability to deploy or meet physical standards is compromised by morbidity know that the odds of being retained in uniform are slim to none. Naturally, their attention must turn to securing fair and favorable compensation.
The VA provides disability ratings for all medical and mental health conditions incurred or aggravated during military service. A soldier's military disability percentage is a subset of the VA rating that reflects career-ending injuries alone. For those whose service is cut short by disease, this military percentage carries lifelong implications. Specifically, a military rating of 30% or above triggers medical retirement and associated entitlements, whereas ratings below that threshold qualify only for a one-time severance payment.
Medical retirement is especially coveted because it carries eligibility for military health insurance, which is widely perceived as more generous and accessible than VA care. To reach that goal, service members are placed in the unenviable position of pleading sickness—they must either convince the military that there is more wrong with them than first acknowledged or persuade the VA that what the military says is wrong with them is more severe than first assessed.
Our wounded warriors are steeped in a culture of self-sacrifice, fortitude and forbearance. Yet to secure benefits for their families, they must rapidly transform into supplicants testifying to their own infirmity. A small cadre of military lawyers like me has the job, and privilege, of advocating for our nation's heroes.
By its very nature, this entails emphasizing what our veterans cannot do. We work with their doctors, nurses, commanders and supervisors to paint the full picture of functional impairment. In the best-case scenario, the service member receives a benefits package that provides economic security that their disabilities would otherwise preclude.
What may be lost in this process is the best hope for meaningful recovery. It conflates disability with inability and diagnosis with destiny. Young men and women who have served their country honorably are left considering themselves irreparably damaged.
High-level task forces recommending overhauls of this system are almost too numerous to count. As early as 1956, a study led by Gen. Omar Bradley warned against a "backward-looking pension philosophy" and urged an emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration. More than a decade ago, the Dole-Shalala Commission reiterated that message, suggesting the Pentagon compensate based solely on rank and longevity and get "out of the disability business" altogether. The latter would be solely in the the VA's purview.
Achieving this vision would require bold congressional action, not just tweaks. At stake is more than mere bureaucratic realignment. Unlike the military, which takes a one-time "snapshot" that locks in or freezes out benefits for life, VA ratings can adjust if a condition either improves or deteriorates. This alleviates the imperative to secure the most severe degree of disability immediately. Disentangling military benefits from disability could help fulfill the core purpose of veterans' care: maximizing recovery and, in the Dole-Shalala report's words, providing a leg up "to get on with life."
Veterans' benefits boast a noble legacy rooted in President Abraham Lincoln's promise to care for those who "shall have borne the battle." Providing our troops their well-deserved remuneration should not come at the expense of sacrificing their resiliency. While the costs of turning warriors into claimants are difficult to quantify, it's not hard to gauge the deleterious effects.
On the road to recuperation, there are few routes less expeditious than having to show you're gravely ill.
Lt. Col. Charles G. Kels is a judge advocate (JAG) in the U.S. Air Force. His views do not reflect those of any government agency.