HEIDELBERG, Germany — U.S. Army Europe soldiers navigating the complex process of medical evaluations that can end their careers and determine future benefits are about to lose a lawyer.
The sole Soldiers Medical Evaluation Board counsel position in Europe is being done away with. The Army said the position, designed to provide disabled troops facing separation from the Army with independent legal advice and advocacy, is no longer needed in Europe.
That’s because such troops must now change duty stations to one of several stateside processing locations, part of the new Integrated Disability Evaluation System.
The IDES, in which the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs collaborate in evaluating soldiers’ injuries, began in October. The collaboration between the two bureaucracies is expected to speed up veterans benefits once a soldier leaves the Army.
“Because the MEB process will occur entirely within (the U.S.), there would be insufficient work in Europe to keep an MEB outreach attorney, operating at the appropriate casework load, engaged full time,” Maria Tolleson, an Army Medical Command spokeswoman, said in an email. Officials determined “that the most efficient use of the MEB outreach Counsel position in Europe was to transfer it to the National Capital Region,” she said, referring to the Washington, D.C., area.
Some soldiers’ advocates, including the outgoing MEB counsel, disputed that.
Raymond Collica, who’s been MEB counsel in Europe for the past four years, and who’ll be unemployed when his job ends Friday, said cutting the position leaves Europe soldiers heading to medical evaluations without the ability to confer, in person, early on in the process, with an adviser and advocate working for them, not the Army.
“The soldiers headed for an MEB need advice BEFORE the process starts,” he said in an email.
“Eliminating my position calls into question the sincerity of the Army’s commitment to protecting the rights of wounded, injured soldiers,” Collica said. “We are constantly hearing new stories about injured soldiers being separated without the benefits they are entitled to, and my job exists to help prevent that sort of thing from happening.”
The MEB counsel position is itself a relatively new thing, created, like the Warrior Transition Units, in the wake of the scandal in 2007 over serious shortcomings at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
But the majority of troops being medically separated have not consulted these lawyers, possibly because they’re not aware of the service, Collica said.
Consulting with the lawyers is not mandatory, although some MEB counsels, including Collica, have suggested it should be.
Since the implementation of the integrated system in Europe in October, 761 soldiers in Europe have been identified as suffering a long-term mental or physical disability, which will require them to undergo an MEB, according to a report from Warrior Transition Battalion-Europe.
Although some troops recover and are eventually returned to duty, the majority are eventually separated from the Army, in what an Army Warrior Transition Command blog called a sometimes “lengthy and frustrating process.”
Disabled soldiers found unfit for duty can be discharged, most often with a one-time disability severance check. The most costly option for the government is for a soldier to be medically retired, which provides a lifelong pension and medical benefits. The outcome depends, among other things, on the number and severity of disabilities that can be documented.
“It’s important for every soldier entering the process to realize that the path to a particular outcome can be shaped even before the MEB begins,” according to the WTC blog. “Consulting with a soldiers’ counsel early in the process will improve a soldier’s chance of attaining his or her goals. …”
According to a USAREUR fact sheet about IDES, moving soldiers stateside after they’ve entered the process takes about three months.
And it can take longer, said Mary Cima, program manager at the Soldier and Family Assistance Center in Wiesbaden.
“There are people here at various stages of the process who require legal assistance,” she said.
“They’re here for months before they get sent (to the U.S.), Cima said. “If there’s nobody here to provide legal assistance, that’s a problem.”
Cima said the decision to do away with Europe’s MEB counsel is only part of the problem in the new way the cases are being handled. Requiring the soldier, often with a family, to move to a unit in the U.S. for processing, adds an extra burden.
“We’re talking about somebody who wasn’t planning on this, who’s compromised physically or emotionally. All this stress and then they have to go through this,” Cima said. “I don’t get it.”
But a former Europe MEB paralegal, who last year won the Commanders’ Award for Civilian Service, said most of the soldiers and their families she saw wanted to return to the U.S.
“They wanted to be near family,” said Judith Gilliam, now a paralegal at an Indianapolis law firm.
Gilliam agreed that soldiers should consult with the MEB counsel office before the process begins – “as soon as they were injured,” she said.
But the cases are worked by paralegals, she said, who do interviews and medical research and help put together the file. The paralegals in Europe can easily confer with lawyers in the U.S., where the Army plans to increase the number of MEB counsel positions.
“We don’t need an MEB attorney in Europe, especially when the paralegals do all the legwork.” Gilliam said.
Soldiers in the U.S. remain assigned to their unit throughout the entire evaluation process. But Europe-based soldiers have to PCS to one of six predetermined stateside Warrior Transition Battalions closest to their home of record. The reason is that the VA’s medical centers are located in the U.S.
Still, since October, 72 soldiers in the WTB-Europe have asked for an exception to policy to remain in Europe when they’re separated.
Troops in that position, Tolleson said, would go to the U.S. on temporary duty for their evaluations, and have paralegals to help them in Europe.
“These paralegals can provide printed information, limited information about the MEB process (though no legal advice) and can facilitate communication with MEB outreach counsel in CONUS [Continental United States] (VIA telephone, FAX, email or VTC) when necessary,” she said.