Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Disabled Soldier Backlog Puts Army at Risk | Military.com

Disabled Soldier Backlog Puts Army at Risk | Military.com

The backlog of soldiers too injured to serve is growing so large that it could affect the Army’s ability to go to war.

Army leaders plan to reduce the size of the service by 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers each year over the next decade, but that’s not counting the 20,500 troops Army doctors have declared unable to serve.

Budget cuts, combined with the end of the Iraq war and drawdown in Afghanistan, have forced the Army to cut end strength by 80,000 soldiers. The 20,500 soldiers tabbed to leave the service because of disabilities, however, still remain on the books.

The backlog is caused by failures in a system built to transition those soldiers out. Quite simply, Army doctors classify more soldiers as too injured to serve than the system can separate each year.

The number of soldiers in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System has grown by 42 percent just this past year. It’s grown from 11,900 soldiers to 20,500 soldiers since 2009. Army medical leaders expect that number to continue to rise. The Defense Department adopted the IDES -- and it will apply each one of the services -- but the Army is in most dire straits.

Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, the Army’s top manpower officer, described the system to Congress as “fundamentally flawed,” saying, “The biggest area that we need help is in the disability evaluation system.”

“It's long. It's disjointed. We have put money and leadership after this and I'm very concerned that while we're drawing down, this large number of soldiers will remain in the disability evaluation system,” Bostick told the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel panel in early March.

It’s rare to hear military leaders openly criticize a system under their control. But it’s clear their frustration is mounting.

The growing backlog puts the Army’s readiness at risk because the current end strength takes into account the number of injured soldiers getting ready to separate. The Army mans units at 110 percent so they can deploy at 90 percent of their authorized strength, said Col. Daniel Cassidy, the deputy commander of the U.S. Army Physical Disability Agency.

“As the top end gets smaller, it squeezes where the [disability evaluation system population] kind of floats in the margin,” he said.

With end strength shrinking, the Army will not have the cushion to absorb the backlog of soldiers stuck in a disability evaluation system that keeps growing, Cassidy said.

The Army colonel said the Defense Department can only do so much to salvage a system in which rules were laid out by congressional legislation in 1949. “A patchwork of laws and regulations have been put in place,” but it hasn’t been enough, Cassidy said.
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