AFPC JAG provides medical board support

  • Published
  • By Maj. David A. Powell
  • Air Force Personnel Center Office of the Staff Judge Advocate
No one plans to go through a medical evaluation board, but an accident or chronic illness can happen to anyone. For the affected Airman, this is an unfamiliar and confusing process, but attorneys, who work these issues every day, can provide expert assistance.

As a judge advocate general officer, I function as the Reserve Disability Legal Counsel for formal physical evaluation boards. I am part of a staff of four attorneys whose job it is to provide sound counsel from the beginning of the process to the end, assisting Airmen every step of the way.

Our involvement could be as early as when an Airman becomes aware that he or she is being considered by a medical evaluation board. The earlier we can establish contact with the client, the better.

We first try to find out what the member wants. The advice we offer depends on whether the member wants to return to duty or whether the member wants an unfit finding and an increase in disability.

When an Airman has a medical condition that impacts their ability to execute the mission, the Airman could be discharged or retired. The process to determine if the Airman will return to duty or be discharged or retired starts with an MEB.

While most MEB actions occur when an Airman voluntarily seeks medical care, commanders may, at any time, in conjunction with the Airman's primary care provider, request an MEB.

Medical boards are initiated by the servicing medical facility and consist of three medical providers with at least one provider specializing in the particular medical condition being considered. The MEB will recommend whether the Airman should be evaluated by the physical evaluation board process or returned to duty.

Once the package is referred to the PEB it is considered by the informal physical evaluation board where the board looks at minimal information to determine whether the Airman is fit or unfit. If fit, the Airman returns to duty. If unfit, then a disability rating is determined according to the Veterans Administration schedule for rating disabilities with a recommended disposition of discharge or retirement.

The Airman can accept the recommendation or appeal to the FPEB. This board takes an in-depth review of the case. The Airman will typically be present at the board, located at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, for three to four days.

On the first day, the Airman reports to the board, processes in, and meets his/her assigned attorney, which could be me or one of my colleagues. During this session, we gather facts about the Airman's condition not contained in the file and what the Airman wishes to achieve. Then we take a closer scrub of the Airman's disability file, the medical charts and any evidence the member has provided.

On the second day, which is usually when the second meeting with the attorney takes place, we will prepare the case for the hearing and review the board hearing procedures with the Airman.

The hearing will normally take place the third or fourth day. I will often meet with the Airman one more time right before the hearing to cover last-minute issues.

We then proceed to a hearing in front of the board. After the presentation of the evidence, the board will deliberate then bring the Airman back in for the Airman to receive the results.

If the Airman is not satisfied with the outcome, the Airman has the right to appeal the findings to the Secretary of the Air Force Personnel Council who then makes the final adjudication of the case. This proceeding is a paper review and the Airman may submit a memorandum to the personnel council presenting his/her case and any material supporting that position. Our staff will assist the Airman with the preparation of the written memo to the council.

If the Airman is not satisfied with the adjudication from the personnel council and the adjudication results in the Airman's separation from the Air Force, the Airman can go to the Air Force Board of Correction of Military Records or ask for a review by the physical disability review board which was created as part of the updates in the Wounded Warrior laws in 2008. The right to review by the PDRB is eligible to Airman who came in after 9/11.

In 2008, Congress took several steps to try to make the disability process better. One improvement in the Wounded Warrior laws is a congressionally mandated right to an impartial medical review at the time of the person's MEB. If the Airman believes that the MEB failed to cover the full spectrum of their medical conditions, then an impartial medical provider can review their case, answer their questions and advise them on whether they should write a rebuttal. This has the process to be a game changer for the Airman, whether the Airman wants to return to duty or is seeking an increase in disability resulting in medical retirement.

Easily this disability practice is the most satisfying practice I've been involved in during my 21 years in the Air Force. My colleagues uniformly agree with me. We are very dedicated to the active duty, reserve component members and temporary retirees we represent and continuously strive to bring the best resources and skills possible to represent our clients.

I bring a total force perspective as a full-time reservist in the Active Guard Reserve program. The AGR program is different from the Air Reserve Technician program or Air Guard Technician program in that my active-duty status never changes and I am treated like any active duty member. Additionally, it is fitting that a full-time reserve component member be on this staff, as the FPEB handles cases from every component of the Air Force including reservists and guardsmen as well as civilians who have been temporarily retired.