WASHINGTON — The backlog of requests to upgrade military discharges is getting attention from lawmakers who are considering combining the armed services' three separate review boards into a single one.
But service leaders say forming one Defense Department appeals panel may not produce any better results, given the complex and often case-specific issues surrounding veterans applications for upgrades.
“I don’t know that consolidating us into one giant board would make us any more efficient or consistent,” Navy Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Manpower Robert Woods told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, during a hearing on the backlog issue.
“These spikes up and down … What they really reflect is the individualized nature of cases.”
Currently, the three service review boards have nearly 26,000 cases that have been pending for more than 10 months, the department’s standard for a backlogged request. More than half of those are before the Army, whose backlog is just under 14,000 cases.
The discharge upgrade requests have come under extra congressional scrutiny in recent years as advocates have found growing evidence of troops dismissed with dishonorable or other-than-honorable status because of misconduct caused by undiagnosed war wounds, mental health issues or mishandled sexual assault claims.
As a result of their military records status, those veterans are often left ineligible for education stipends, VA health care services and a host of other benefits. The review boards are charged with reviewing cases to see if they warrant a change in status due to unknown issues or administrative errors.
Last summer, defense officials issued new guidance to the review boards clarifying “liberal consideration” for veterans with mental health issues or sexual abuse cases, designed to ease the burden of proof required for those appeals.
Service officials said they have seen an increase in case approvals since then, but the extra consideration has also added to the complexity of processing cases.
It has also led to different completion and approval rates within each of the services, prompting a suggestion from Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., that a unified review board may make more sense than the current set-up.
“I want us not to be fixated as three separate entities when we are talking about a universe of troops who have served and want to be considered for upgrades,” she said at the hearing. “We want to make sure they are all being treated the same.”
Service representatives instead said they are looking into other improvements to reach backlog and fairness goals.
Francine Blackmon, the Army’s top review boards official, said her service developed new training programs tailored to the mental health questions and has begun partnering with Navy officials on sharing processing practices.
But even with that, she expects it will take six more years to eliminate the backlog “without additional resources.”
John Fedrigo, director of the Air Force Review Boards Agency, said his service expects to eliminate their backlog — down 30 percent in the last year — in 2019.
But Speier said she wants more investigation into the idea of a unified review board. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and head of the committee’s personnel panel, also expressed concerns about the pace of the separate boards’ work.
“The services have been unable to meet many of the congressionally mandated processing timelines for the past few years,” he said.
“In some cases, veterans have waited 450 days or more for action on their applications. These delays have real consequences for both the applicants and their families.”