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So far this fiscal year, 328 U.S. Army Europe soldiers have had their aches, pains and disabilities reviewed by officials to see whether they’re physically unfit for duty and, if so, what sort of compensation the Army owes them.

“It’s very common. Old age, you fall off a truck, residual effects from two or three deployments …,” said Maj. Ellen Daly, the Europe Regional Medical Command’s chief of patient administration. “If you can’t run, if you can’t do sit-ups, if you have a painful neck and can’t wear your Kevlar, you can’t be a combat soldier.”

This fiscal year’s numbers are on track with the total of soldiers whose cases went to a Physical Evaluation Board, or PEB, in Washington, D.C., from USAREUR in the last fiscal year — 560 — even though the number of soldiers in the command has dropped. That’s because of deployments and the increased operations tempo, Daly said, resulting in more injuries.

Nationally, about 14,000 such cases are handled annually, according to the Army’s Human Resources Command, with fewer than 15 percent of them combat-related.

For many soldiers, being medically discharged isn’t what they had planned, and their compensation isn’t what they believe they deserve.

Soldiers and veterans’ advocates have charged that the Army is “deliberately shortchanging troops on their disability retirement ratings to hold down costs,” according to a February story in the Army Times.

A Government Accountability Office report quoted in the story said the number of soldiers approved for permanent disability retirement — the most expensive compensation option — had gone from 642 in 2001, before the Iraq war, to 209 in 2005.

The Army has denied it is shortchanging injured troops. According to a Human Resources Command fact sheet, the system “is not intended nor designed to compensate Soldiers for all the impairments they incur while in service to their country. (The system) compensates Soldiers only for those conditions that prematurely terminate a Soldier’s military career.”

Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, Human Resources Command spokesman, said in an e-mail: “It is not uncommon for a Soldier to have a condition that renders him unfit for the rigors of Soldiering but would be rated at 0, 10, or 20% because the condition would not be expected to significantly compromise employability.”

Some changes might be in the offing.

Last month, the Army announced it had called to active duty 18 Reserve lawyers and paralegals to provide legal assistance for soldiers fighting a PEB decision.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate approved an amendment to the Defense Department Authorization Act that would, among other things, require an independent review of disability benefit ratings below 20 percent and increase disability benefits as warranted.

After a soldier is thought to be unfit for duty because of an illness or injury incurred in the line of duty, the process begins with a Medical Evaluation Board. The board consists of two medical doctors who document injuries and ailments. They make no recommendations; the medical records and other documents, such as a letter from the soldier’s commander, are forwarded to the PEB.

For USAREUR soldiers, the board, made up of three Army officers — a physician, a personnel officer and another field-grade officer — decides disabilities and compensation.

The board’s decision is reached after reviewing the file and applying a complicated set of Army regulations, Defense Department instructions and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ schedule for rating disabilities.

“It depends on what the injury is, the severity of it and what the soldier can and cannot do,” said Maj. Orlando Rummans, chief of patient administration for the ERMC command surgeon.

If a soldier disagrees with the rating, he or she can demand a hearing before the board, with free legal assistance provided.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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