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Navigating the Disability Evaluation System

Military physician examing a patient

Photo by Airman Maebel Tinoko

If your military service is cut short due to a service-related disability that occurred in the line of duty, you may be eligible to receive benefits. Federal law and military regulations require a thorough review of your case through the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) to determine the level of disability and entitlement to disability retirement. Understanding the IDES process can be complicated and even stressful at times. This article provides an overview of the different phases of the IDES and support resources that can help reduce the stress of navigating the system.

Phase 1: Medical Evaluation Board (MEB)

When a military medical care provider refers a service member to the IDES, they are assigned a Physical Evaluation Board Liaison Officer (PEBLO) as a guide to help navigate the system and make sure they are aware of their options and the many decisions they need to make. Additionally, they are assigned a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Military Service Coordinator to help them file their VA benefits claim.1

MEB Review
Once a service member is referred to the system, medical providers complete the necessary medical exams. The results of the exams are summarized and added to the MEB report (also referred to as the IDES case file), which is forwarded to the MEB for consideration.

The MEB consists of two to three medical officers that review the case file to determine the appropriate diagnosis and ability of the service member to return to full, unrestricted duty within a reasonable amount of time. If the MEB determines that medical retention standards are met, then the service member can return to full duty in their current job. If the MEB determines that a return to duty is questionable, the service member’s case is forwarded to the Physical Evaluation Board (PEB).2

Phase 2: Physical Evaluation Board

The PEB is comprised of two levels of boards: the Informal PEB and the Formal PEB. Both boards are composed of three senior and experienced military members, including one medical officer.2

Informal PEB
The Informal PEB will determine the percentage of the service member’s disability compensation using Defense Department Directives and Instructions, service-specific policy and the VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities. Then, the Informal PEB makes one of the following determinations:3

  • Return to Active Duty.
  • Separate without Benefits. The PEB will recommend that the military discharge the service member without benefits if a service member’s disability existed prior to entry in the armed forces, or if the injury was a result of intentional misconduct.
  • Separate with Severance Pay. If a service member’s disability rating is not high enough to be placed on a retirement list (i.e., less than 30 percent), the PEB will recommend that they be separated from active duty. The service member will likely be awarded severance pay based on their time in service and current pay grade.
  • Transfer to the Temporary Disability Retirement List (TDRL). A service member can be temporarily retired and placed on the TDRL for a maximum of five years. The TDRL allows for the service member’s medical condition to stabilize before a final disability determination is made. Every 12-18 months the service member is reevaluated by a new PEB and can be:
    • Returned to active duty
    • Re-assigned to the TDRL
    • Separated with severance pay if the service member’s disability rating has decreased to less than 30 percent
    • Transferred to the Permanent Disability Retired List (PDRL) if the service member’s disability increased to 30 percent or higher
  • Transfer to the PDRL
    • If a service member’s disability rating is 30 percent or higher, and their condition is considered stable (meaning the disability rating is unlikely to change within five years), they will be permanently retired for disability and placed on the PDRL.

Formal PEB2
If a service member disagrees with the Informal PEB findings and disability rating, they have a right to request a Formal PEB. At this point, the service member may elect to enlist the help of an attorney to prepare a petition and gather evidence for their case. Service members have the right to hire an attorney of their own choosing at their own expense, or they may ask to have a military lawyer represent them at no cost. After deliberation, the Formal PEB prepares a determination letter of fit or unfit, along with a written rationale to support their findings. If the service member does not agree with this determination, they have one last chance to dispute the findings of their hearing through a formal appeals process. The final appeals determination is made by each service secretary’s appointed approval authority.2


Phase 3: Separate or Return to Service

Separate from Service  
All service members placed on the disability lists are provided with disability retirement pay, access to TRICARE, commissary and exchange privileges and all other benefits of regular military retirement. Additionally, if a service member has more than 20 years of service and their disability rating is 20 percent or less, they will be allowed to retire with all the regular retirement benefits. 3

The military services determine retired pay by using two methods. The first is based on the disability percentage (minimum of 50 percent while on the TDRL). The second is based on the years of active service. The method that provides the greatest entitlement computes pay.4

Return to Service
If a wounded service member has been found unfit by the PEB, there are different service regulations in place that may allow that service member to return to service, with limitations:

Air Force5
Some airmen whom the PEB has found physically unfit can serve on active duty in Limited Assignment Status (LAS) with limitations and controls over their assignments. This option is open to members on extended active duty who meet the eligibility criteria and apply for LAS. Members who have some type of non-disability retirement or separation pending are not eligible for LAS. Serving in LAS depends on the type and extent of the member’s physical condition, the amount of medical management and support needed to sustain the member on active duty, the physical and assignment limitations required, the years of service completed and the Air Force need for particular grade and specialty.

All soldiers whom a PEB or MEB finds unfit for duty are eligible to apply for Continuation on Active Duty or Continuation on Active Reserve regardless of the extent of their injuries. The U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Advocates assist soldiers who are interested in pursuing Continuation on Active Duty or Continuation on Active Reserve. The program notifies the Human Resource Command as soon as the soldier expresses interest in remaining on active duty and assists throughout the entire application process. To date, most AW2 soldiers who requested to continue to serve the nation have been able to do so.7 Leaders at all levels in military and civilian organizations recognize that veterans have vast knowledge, skills and expertise that they can use to enhance their training curriculum and workplace experience.

Marine Corps8
A Marine may be placed on Permanent Limited Duty (PLD) — a specified continuation on active duty in a limited duty status — if the PEB determines the Marine is unfit as a result of a disability. The PEB requests and authorizes PLD based on the best interests of the Marine Corps and the Marine.

The Navy may also place an active duty sailor in a PLD status. Authority to grant PLD is limited solely to service headquarters.

Although navigating the IDES can be complicated and stressful at times, remember that you have a support team available to help. Your PEBLO will guide you through the MEB and PEB phases and your VA coordinator can help you file for benefits. Throughout the entire process, do not hesitate to reach out for help and ask your support team about anything that you do not understand.

diagram of the Integrated Disability Evaluation System

Additional Resources


1IDES Overview,” Office of Wounded Warrior Care. Last accessed April 25, 2014.

2 "Understanding the Military Medical Evaluation Process." (n.d.). Military OneSource.

3Wounded, Ill and Injured Compensation and Benefits Handbook,” [PDF 724.67 KB] Defense Department. Published October 2011.

4Retired Pay Information,” Defense Finance and Accounting Service. Last accessed April 25, 2014.

5 Air Force Instruction 36-3212, “Physical Evaluation for Retention, Retirement and Separation,” [PDF 954.05 KB] U.S. Air Force. Published Feb. 2, 2006.

6 Army Regulation 635-40, “Physical Evaluation for Retention, Retirement or Separation,” [PDF 447.82 KB] U.S. Army. Published March 20, 2012.

7 "U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program COAD/COAR,” [PDF 304KB] U.S. Army Warrior Transition Command. Last accessed April 25, 2014.

8 Marine Corps Order P1900.16F, “Separation and Retirement Manual,” [PDF 1.54 MB] U.S. Marine Corps. Published June 6, 2007.

9 Secretary of the Navy Instruction 1850.4E, “Department of the Navy Disability Evaluation Manual,” [PDF 5.75 MB] U.S. Navy. Published April 30, 2002.

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