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ARLINGTON, Va. — The number of U.S. soldiers who have received permanent disability retirement has fallen sharply since 2001, according to the Government Accountability Office.

A March 2006 GAO report shows that 642 soldiers received permanent disability retirement in 2001, compared with 209 in 2005.

The Army Times first reported Friday that critics claim the numbers show the Army is trying to save money by giving wounded soldiers less of a disability rating than they deserve.

“These people are being systematically underrated,” Ron Smith, of Disabled American Veterans, told Army Times. “It’s a bureaucratic game to preserve the budget, and it’s having an adverse affect on servicemembers.”

Army spokesman Paul Boyce responded by calling the assertions in the Army Times story “flatly inaccurate.”

“The U.S. Army highly disputes allegations made by one or two think-tank analysts that our veterans’ service is in any way attempting to shortchange wounded soldiers on their needed disability benefits,” Boyce said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

He also said the Army continues to help thousands of wounded soldiers meet their needs “in a fair, generous spirit.”

But Boyce acknowledged that an ongoing review of how each service determines how badly servicemembers are disabled has shown the Army’s Physical Disability Evaluation System has some shortcomings.

“To date, the Army’s review of initial findings include that the training for personnel assisting soldiers is not standardized, that current information-management databases are inadequate, and that there are policy disconnects between Army regulations and Defense Department instructions,” Boyce said in an e-mail.

Over the past five years, the Army has also seen a surge in the number of soldiers needing in-patient care, with Medical Evaluation Boards increasing from 6,500 cases in fiscal 2002 to about 11,000 cases in fiscals 2005 and 2006, and Physical Evaluation Boards going from about 9,000 cases in 2001 to a peak of 15,000 cases in 2005, Boyce said,

“Many cases have become more complicated because of the types of injuries soldiers now are sustaining in combat, and with this patient volume, the Army currently does not meet its own case-processing time standards or those of the Defense Department,” he said.

So far, the review has come up with 87 recommendations to improve case processing time and procedures, and Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey has vowed swift action, Boyce said.

“This is too important and cannot wait for a report to be finished or a review to be completed,” Harvey said in Boyce’s e-mail. “We’ll fix as we go; we’ll fix as we find things wrong.”

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