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Slow disability process makes drawdown harder

Mar. 7, 2012 - 02:36PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 7, 2012 - 02:36PM  |  
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A "fundamentally flawed" disability evaluation system threatens to complicate the upcoming military drawdown, the Army's personnel chief said Tuesday.

Testifying before a House subcommittee, Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel, said fixing the disability evaluation and retirement system is a bigger problem than both deciding how to reduce the number of soldiers and helping separating soldiers find jobs.

"The biggest area that we need help is in the disability evaluation system," Bostick told the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel panel, when asked what help he needed to facilitate the drawdown.

He said the Army plans to cut its active-duty force at an annual rate of 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers over the next few years, but there are 19,600 soldiers whose continued military service is in doubt because of backlogs in the disability review process.

"Almost 20,000 soldiers are in a system that takes over 400 days to get through," Bostick said. "I am very concerned that while we are drawing down, this large number of soldiers will remain in the disability evaluation system. It is fundamentally flawed. It causes an adversarial relationship with our medical professionals. It is long. It is disjointed."

Efforts have been under way since 2007 to streamline the system, which expanded nationwide in 2011.

The problem, not explicitly spelled out by Bostick in his testimony, is that the Army expects 95 percent of soldiers going through the disability process to be separated, but they continue to count against personnel limits until that happens. As a result, the Army could end up being forced to separate a non-disabled soldier to keep room within personnel caps for someone they expect to lose because of a disability.

In written statement to the personnel committee, Bostick said the Army "is committed to doing everything it can to improve the current process" but added that even if it moved faster, there would still be problems. The goal for the evaluation process is to make a decision in 295 days, but Bostick said that even 10 months "is simply too long for our soldiers and their families to wait while their future hangs in the balance."

The almost 20,000 soldiers awaiting disability review are the equivalent of five brigade combat teams "sitting on the bench, not available or deployable, who must be replaced from other elements to meet operational and tactical requirements," Bostick said.

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