WASHINGTON — Staff Sgt. Nicholas Lanier has entered what he calls the "vast unknown." A combat veteran and father to four daughters, he can't remain in the military because of a serious back injury that happened in Iraq.
But he can't yet accept a civilian job because he doesn't know when the military will discharge him. He has no clue how much the government will pay him in disability compensation related to his injury, so he can't make a future budget. He just waits.
"I don't have any idea what the end stat is going to be on the other side. When you have a family and you are trying to plan for the future, that's going to affect a lot of things," said Lanier, a 37-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., who walks with a limp because of related nerve damage. "The only known is that it takes time."
Thousands of troops are like Lanier: not fully fit to serve but in limbo for about two years waiting to get discharged under a new system that was supposed to be more efficient than its predecessor. And the delays are not only affecting service members, but the military's readiness as well. New troops can't enlist until others are discharged.
The government determines the pay and benefits given to wounded, sick or injured troops for their military service. Under the old system, a medical board would determine their level of military compensation and the service member would be discharged. Then the veteran essentially would have to go through the process again with the Veterans Affairs Department to determine benefits. While they waited for their VA claim to be processed, many of the war wounded were going broke.
Under the new system, which started in 2007 and will be completely rolled out at military bases nationwide by the end of September, the service member essentially goes through both disability evaluation systems at the same time before leaving the military.
But the new, supposedly streamlined, system is still such a cumbersome process that it's leaving many service members in limbo, they say. A typical service member's case is handed off between the Defense Department and the VA nine times during the new integrated process. It typically starts about a year after a service member is injured, after it's clear that remaining on duty isn't possible, with a goal of 295 days to complete after that initial year. However, the average completion time after the initial year is more than 400 days, leaving the service member in limbo more than two years.