J.C. Van Lierop III, Post-9/11 Army Disability Decisions: Reinforcing Administrative Law Principles in Fitness and Disability Rating Determinations

61 Fla. L. Rev. 639 (2009) | | | |

INTRODUCTION :: Counter-Intuitive Trends in an Army at War
“[T]o care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan . . . .”
-Abraham Lincoln

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 catalyzed two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While combat broke Afghan and Iraqi military forces with relatively few American casualties, both wars devolved into protracted insurgencies. As of March 3, 2009, 3,854 American service members had been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. While combat deaths are widely reported, the number of wounded service members is less visible but staggering nonetheless. According to the Department of Defense, 33,790 American service members had been wounded in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as of March 3, 2009.

These statistics reveal that the wounded-to-killed ratio of soldiers serving in the Iraq and Afghan wars is approximately nine to one. A comparison of this ratio to past wars indicates that a much higher percentage of troops survive battlefield injuries today compared to only a few decades ago. The marked increase in battlefield injury survival can be attributed to a number of causes: improved personnel and vehicle armor, advances in medical technology and training, increased use of helicopters in evacuating injured troops, closer proximity of field hospitals to combat areas, and rapid evacuation of critically wounded soldiers to major hospitals in Europe and the United States.


While the increased soldier survival rate is welcome news, it has imposed a heavier burden on the military’s physical disability system. An increase in soldier referral through the disability system is logical under the circumstances, as many wounded troops are no longer able to serve. Thus, in 2001, there were 7,218 Army active duty and reserve soldiers referred to the disability system, while in 2005, after nearly two full years of war in Iraq and four years of fighting in Afghanistan, this number totaled 13,748 soldiers, an increase of more than 90%.

Paradoxically, the number of soldiers who received permanent disability retirement benefits as a result of their referral to the disability system declined. After five years of war and a 90% increase in disability cases, the Army afforded disability retirement benefits to only 3.6% of soldiers referred for disability processing from January to August 2005, down from 10.5% in 2001. This decrease in permanent retirement disability ratings is almost 67%.

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