Army leaders plan to reduce the size of the service by 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers each year over the next decade, but that's not counting the 20,500 troops Army doctors have declared unable to serve.
Budget cuts, combined with the end of the Iraq war and drawdown in Afghanistan, have forced the Army to cut end strength by 80,000 soldiers. The 20,500 soldiers tabbed to leave the service because of disabilities, however, still remain on the books.
The backlog is caused by failures in a system built to transition those soldiers out. Quite simply, Army doctors classify more soldiers as too injured to serve than the system can separate each year.
The number of soldiers in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System has grown by 42 percent just this past year. It's grown from 11,900 soldiers to 20,500 soldiers since 2009. Army medical leaders expect that number to continue to rise. The Defense Department adopted the IDES -- and it will apply each one of the services -- but the Army is in most dire straits.
Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, the Army's top manpower officer, described the system to Congress as "fundamentally flawed," saying, "The biggest area that we need help is in the disability evaluation system."
"It's long. It's disjointed. We have put money and leadership after this and I'm very concerned that while we're drawing down, this large number of soldiers will remain in the disability evaluation system," Bostick told the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel panel in early March.
It's rare to hear military leaders openly criticize a system under their control. But it's clear their frustration is mounting.
The growing backlog puts the Army's readiness at risk because the current end strength takes into account the number of injured soldiers getting ready to separate. The Army mans units at 110 percent so they can deploy at 90 percent of their authorized strength, said Col. Daniel Cassidy, the deputy commander of the U.S. Army Physical Disability Agency.
"As the top end gets smaller, it squeezes where the [disability evaluation system population] kind of floats in the margin," he said.
With end strength shrinking, the Army will not have the cushion to absorb the backlog of soldiers stuck in a disability evaluation system that keeps growing, Cassidy said.
The Army colonel said the Defense Department can only do so much to salvage a system in which rules were laid out by congressional legislation in 1949. "A patchwork of laws and regulations have been put in place," but it hasn't been enough, Cassidy said.
"We've advocated for a number of years that we really need to reform this. There's only so much we can do within the constraints of this law that was created in 1949," Cassidy said. "We have to reform this system."
In a perfect world, Army leaders would prefer a system that allowed the service to make a fitness decision and then hand a soldier off to the VA to decide what disability rating he or she receives, Cassidy said.
The Army and the Defense Department as a whole have made changes to the system as recently as 2007. Officials have incrementally introduced the new system to each one of its 34 installations over the past four years.
Those changes have cut down the time it takes for servicemembers to receive benefits from 540 days down to 400. But that's still unacceptable for Army leadership.
Army officials have set a goal to process 60 percent of soldiers through the disability evaluation system in 295 days by the end of the year. The process runs the gamut from the time a soldier receives a medical referral from Army doctors to the time he or she receives Defense Department and Veterans Affairs benefits after a discharge.
To accomplish this, the Army is working to standardize the process across an enterprise that Army officials admit is confusing for soldiers and their families.
"The process has about 10 sub-processes in it and about 155 processing steps. It crosses eight functional activities. It crosses two departments in the Army; the personnel department and the medical department, and it crosses the department of the VA," Cassidy said. "It is a very complex process to manage because of all of those touch points."
Army officials have also tried to launch the process into the new century. Rather than physically mail records between the Army and the VA, the two departments finally started to digitally exchange records in March. This will save seven to 10 days alone, Cassidy said.
What's truly holding the Army medical command back is a lack of staffing. There are not enough doctors or physical evaluation board liaison officers, better known as PEBLOs, to process the soldiers.
The Army is adding 1,400 people this year to its disability evaluation staff, but it will take a while to train the new staff and make gains toward reducing the backlog.
"We can't just, out on the open market, a buy a bunch of medical evaluation board doctors. The training it takes to teach the providers how to evaluate and asses[s] those conditions can take up to a year's worth of time and effort of on the job training," said Col. Gregory Swanson, the Integrated Disability System's chief for the IDS Task Force, Army Medical Command.
It's not only injured active-duty soldiers the Army is worried about separating. A quarter of the backlog is made up of Guardsmen and reservists who often have to travel long distances for appointments. For example, most soldiers who live in Alaska have to fly to Seattle to see an Army doctor.
That's changing as the Army and VA are working to empower local facilities to offer those appointments to veterans.
"For some reservists, they had to even miss work just to travel all the way to their appointments. That wasn't fair to them or their families, so we're working on that," Cassidy said.
Changes like these help, but Cassidy often returns to his main point when discussing the system: Wholesale change is needed.
"The Army does think we need to fundamentally change the [disability evaluation system.] Statutory reform is the only way to achieve a system that really is worthy of the sacrifices of our force in this era of persistent conflict," Cassidy said.
March 26, 2012
Military.com|by Michael Hoffman